Active near field studio monitors at the lower end of the mid-range price bracket are plentiful. The same names crop up time and time again; Yamaha, Genelec, Mackie, KRK, JBL, Genelec and Presonus just to name a few. Competing models from these brands all share similar feature sets and the same basic design, though some style the front baffle or use different driver materials in an attempt to differentiate themselves. And while the purpose of a studio monitor is to remain entirely faithful to the input to help you make informed mixing decisions, some of the models around this price do have a characteristic ‘house sound’ whether by design or due to the compromises that must be made to build them to a cost.
Enter relative market newcomers Kali Audio. Founded in 2018, the company has already made a splash with two monitor ranges and a subwoofer, the latter claiming to be “the most powerful subwoofer under $1000”. Designed at the company’s headquarters in California and all named after cities in the California state, Kali’s products are designed by passionate individuals with engineering at the forefront, and in a creative environment that encourages experimentation and allows the time and space to develop ideas.
At the bottom of the Kali product range sit the LP (Lone Pine) series monitors. These are more traditional designs available in LP6 (6.5-inch woofer) and LP8 (8-inch woofer) versions. Bi-amplified Class D power amplifiers, a 1-inch soft-dome tweeter with 3D imaging waveguide, and custom port tubes engineered using airflow simulation are shared throughout the product range. Starting at $149USD the LP series monitors represent terrific value for money, with full frequency response test data available from the Kali Audio website.
Many brands don’t publish so much as a meaningless frequency response graph, much less a full suite of independent test data, even for their higher-end models. Instead, they publish marketing blabber emphasising accuracy and neutrality (ideal characteristics of a monitoring loudspeaker) even if the speakers themselves are anything but. Hats off to Kali for not only showing faith in their product, but for going to great lengths to provide useful information to help consumers make an informed purchasing choice.
The IN (Independence) series monitors are the current flagship and are a three-way design. Starting at $349USD with a UK street price of £approximately 349GBP, the IN series monitors incorporate innovations and technology I have yet to see at this price. These include coincident drivers, digital signal processing facilitating highly accurate boundary equalisation. I dare say this is the most affordable active loudspeaker system equipped with a coincident driver on the market, though haven’t any definitive research to confirm this. Kali kindly sent over the ‘2nd Wave’ IN-8 for review. Let’s dive straight in.
Like most studio monitors the IN-8s are sold and packaged individually. In the box, you get some documentation and a pack of soft feet and (in the case of the review sample) a European IEC power cable. The IN-8s are deceptively large, though unusually tolerant in their positioning thanks mostly to the EQ adjustment; more on that later.
I would describe their MDF cabinets as ‘purposeful’ in appearance; you don’t get the gently rounded edges of a Yamaha HS-8 for example, but the cabinets are well constructed and finished in black vinyl with a front baffle of black-painted plastic. Build quality across the board is high, with only a slight variance in front-panel alignment relative to the sides of the cabinet giving any indication of the modest price.
The cabinets are a little more resonant than I’d like when tapped and could perhaps benefit from some damping or bracing but any resonances here can be overcome in the DSP and don’t appear to have a detrimental effect on performance.
The IN-8s are front-ported with the mouth of the cleverly shaped port tube integrated into the front baffle following the curvature of the bass driver. The port tube is the same as that of the LP series, designed using airflow simulation and intended to reduce chuffing and other undesirable noises generated as air moves at different speeds through the port opening. Kali’s port design ensures that air leaves the port at the same velocity, keeping the bass clean and tight, unmasking low-end detail and keeping the port devoid of extra noise.
Of greater interest on the front panel is the coincident driver. More often referred to as a coaxial, concentric or dual-concentric driver, this custom-designed unit places a 1-inch soft-dome tweeter at the centre of a 4-inch profile-optimised mid-range driver. A coincident driver lacks dispersion discontinuity through the crossover point and vastly improves time alignment between the two drivers. This results in better imaging and stereo dimensionality and ultimately greater accuracy across a critical frequency spectrum where our ears are most sensitive. While most traditional designs image well side-to-side, their off-axis imaging above and below the speaker are quite poor. The coincident driver however gives 360-degree imaging, extending the stereo image in width and height. The effect is startling at first but is hyper-realistic, and is the reason I use concentric loudspeakers in my domestic hi-fi system.
In a coincident driver, the midrange acts as a waveguide for the tweeter. This can present some problems if the excursion of the driver is not limited, as excessive diaphragmatic reciprocation causes intermodulation distortion and cone diffraction which effectively changes the shape of the tweeter waveguide. The driver in the IN-8 is limited to a maximum 1 mm peak to peak excursion so is acoustically stationary while still able to provide more than enough excursion to give a smooth frequency response. The almost non-existent surround material is better optimised too, absorbing energy that would otherwise be reflected into the diaphragm by the sub-optimal surround of a typical mid/bass driver, causing undesirable resonance in the critical 700 – 1.6kHz region.
The three-way driver configuration reduces distortion by unburdening the woofer and tweeter. In a two-way configuration, the woofer must handle bass and lower mid frequencies, while the tweeter handles higher mids and of course the high frequencies. The tweeter in particular is usually required to reproduce frequencies from around 2.4kHz to at least 20kHz. A three-way configuration allows the crossover point between the woofer and midrange to be at a low-mid frequency with a distance well under a quarter of a wavelength. The IN-8s are tri-amplified with independent 40-watt class D amplifiers for the mid and tweeter, and a 60-watt class D amplifier powering the woofer.
The smaller model in the range, the IN-5, is similarly appointed though the woofer power is boosted to 80W, as smaller drivers require higher power to move the same amount of air and produce an equivalent SPL to a larger driver. Total harmonic distortion is specified at less than 1%, presumably at their rated power output though no measurement reference is given.
The IN-8 drivers comprise a polymer-coated paper cone material with n concave dust cap on the woofer and a soft dome tweeter. Unusually the woofer dust cap is not fixed to the cone itself but instead to the end of the voice coil former. Less unusual is that the bass diaphragm is nominally 160 mm in diameter as opposed to the 200 mm diameter suggested by the 8-inch driver specificationactually
. This is the norm as the driver dimension relates to the chassis, not the diaphragm thanks to an old British standard.
System frequency response is specified at 37Hz – 25kHz and 45Hz – 21kHz flat to within 3dB. The woofer to mid crossover point is at 280Hz and the mid to tweeter 2.8kHz. Max SPL (sound pressure level) is 117dB (85dB at 1M) with a recommended listening distance of 0.5-3.5 metres. These figures allow for more than 20dB of dynamic headroom for musical peaks. The IN-8s can produce plenty of power to fill a mid-sized room and will reach low enough to reproduce all but the lowest synthesised notes. I would have no concerns mixing on these without a subwoofer, which is how I used them for the duration of the review.
The rear IO comprises balanced inputs on 6.3 inch TRS (+4dBu) and XLR (+4dBu) and a switchable RCA (-10dBV) input intended for the connection of consumer devices such as phones, laptops or a turntable, though the latter will require an external preamplifier. Accompanying those is a bank of 8 switches LF and HF trims and configuration of the DSP-based boundary EQs. The settings are explained in a handy diagram on the rear panel which is a nice touch. Also on the back are an input gain knob with a clear detent at its centre (0dB) position, providing attenuation from infinite to +6dB. Power comes in via a standard IEC C14 receptacle, and the monitors are voltage invariant to worldwide line voltages.
The boundary EQ is one of the defining features of the IN-8s. Developed by the Kali team at LA’s Village Studios, They compensate for low-frequency interactions that the speaker will have with various surfaces in common placements, such as close to rear or side walls or sitting on a resonant meter bridge. Three of the rear switches control the boundary compensation EQ settings, two control the HF trim, two the LF trim and the eighth toggles to the RCA input and should be switched off when that input is not in use to prevent extraneous noise.
The boundary EQ that should be used is defined by the position of the loudspeakers. Position one ‘Free Space’ is an ideal position in which the speakers are on monitor stands at least 0.5 metres (20 inches) away from any wall. Position two is to be used when the speakers are within 0.5 metres of a wall, but not butted up against one. Position three is similar, though has the speakers close to a rear wall on stands. Position four is for when the speakers are positioned on a console or meter bridge. Positions five and six define an EQ for when the speakers are on a desk or table, both away from and close to a wall. Position seven is designed for situations where the speakers are on a desk and are as close to a wall as possible, allowing for cables. And position eight allows for wall mounting.
The high and low-frequency trim switches each feature an adjustment switch and a switch to disengage the function. Each trim offers either -2dB or +2dB of attenuation.
As is clear the level of adjustability make the IN-8s extraordinarily versatile, especially given their size. In my testing I found the boundary compensation EQ to perform exactly as indicated and by experimenting I was able to achieve a sound that was perfect for the room, with the speakers in the ideal position for functionality rather than them necessarily being positioned for best sonics.
Many 8 inch studio monitors are overbearing in a smaller space, yet smaller speakers don’t have sufficient low-end grunt for mixing certain kinds of music. The IN-8s are the best of both worlds as despite being a large monitor they will fit in just about any room, from a desk in a bedroom studio to a dedicated acoustically treated control room. As the dispersion characteristic of a coincident driver is orientation invariable, the IN-8s will perform equally well in a landscape orientation if space is tight or if a landscape orientation interacts better interacts acoustically with the room.
Setup was nothing out of the ordinary. The speakers power up without drama. There’s a slight delay to prevent pops and clicks at startup. One change from the first wave IN-8s to the second is a significant reduction in self-noise. A faint hiss is only audible with an ear to the tweeter or if you listen with great concentration in an otherwise silent room. Some active speakers employ automatic muting circuits to combat the noise generated by their idling amplifiers. In some cases however these circuits operate by detecting an incoming signal and can take a moment to ‘wake’, often with a small pop. Here Kali Audio did the right thing in designing their amplification properly to begin with, so that it is low in self noise.
That’s enough rambling on how the IN-8s sound when they’re not playing anything. The sound they make when they are fed a signal is what matters and here too they don’t disappoint. The first thing that really took me by surprise was their imaging. I am used to coincident drivers in a hi-fi system, though ones that are somewhat limited by being a single-driver point-source loudspeaker. In other words the driver is responsible for the full range of frequencies, and thus the excursion of the main diaphragm causes undesirable change in the shape of the tweeter waveguide as noted above. This isn’t so much a problem in a domestic hi-fi as you’re not reliant on the accuracy of the system, but it does impact the ability of the loudspeaker to produce an image that is as three-dimensional as a coincident driver is capable of.
The Kali IN-8s however are capable of producing images that I can only describe as holographic. Instrument placement within the stereo field is spot on, to the point where you can envisage your mix as if it were painted before you on a canvas with clearly defined space around every element, yet every element somehow coming together to form a perfectly cohesive picture. This is a level of imaging that few coincident hi-fi loudspeakers can match by design. The effect on mixes that you previously heard or made on a more traditional two-way monitor can be quite profound.
It’s not that those other monitors were especially coloured and inaccurate in their sound, nor did I feel their imaging left me wanting. I was afraid as I brought up some of my prior mixes that I would suddenly begin to find glaring issues that I had missed outside of the boundaries prior monitors were able to portray. That wasn’t the case, though there were aspects that I would improve having heard some of my stereo layouts in such a different light. The IN-8s allowed me to hear much further into the mix and identify changes that I could make to better balance elements of my mixes in stereo space, while also reaffirming mix decisions that I had made previously. To my mind this makes the Kali IN-8s a highly reliable mixing tool, as I know that those mixes translate well to playback via consumer audio equipment from the smartphone to high-end hi-fi.
The low end is another of the IN-8s strengths. It is tight and beautifully controlled with no blurring of notes and completely free of any constraint or distortion. Much like a small car with great handling can start and stop on a dime, so too can the IN-8s go from the thundering growl of an organ’s lower octaves to the snap of a funk snare. The way these speakers deliver low end is absolutely faithful to the source material but also manages to be great fun to kick back and listen to.
And of course, a dedicated mid-range driver gives you luscious mids. Female vocals are a real treat, with each nuance conveyed as if the singer is sitting before you. I suppose you could describe the IN-8s as being a tad ‘warm’ in their sonic character, though it’s so minor that there is no tendency to compensate in a. Mix. The mids and the IN-8s phenomenal imaging abilities really come into their own when mixing with reverb. Not only do simulated spaces sound absolutely stunning, but it’s easy to achieve just the right balance of reverb across elements of a mix without drowning nuances of the instruments or vocals in reverberation overlap.
The IN-8s incorporate a built-in limiter that cannot be defeated. So too do most active monitors including Yamaha’s HS-8s, a common modification with those being to disable the onboard limiter as it tends to make itself known by bringing an unpleasant sharpness to a monitor that is already on the uncomfortably bright side of neutrality.
The IN-8s limiter is more subtle in its approach. Distortion will be heard if the limiter engages, and you are encouraged to turn down the volume. Given the power the IN-8s have on tap, however, chances are you’re either running them in an entirely inappropriate environment, or you’re risking your auditory health if you can consistently trip the limiter. The IN-8s showed no strain at the loudest levels I could comfortably handle and their dynamic performance with complex music was admirable to say the least.
The Kali Audio IN-8s are a remarkable monitor for the price. These are far more than the half-hearted efforts of some, throwing off-the-shelf drivers and amplifier modules into a basic enclosure to produce a sellable product. If these were a more expensive monitor I would expect a little less resonance in the cabinet and a denser front panel, either machined from a slab of MDF or cast in a material more substantial than the injection-moulded plastic seen here. However, the IN-8s represent something fairly unique at this level in that a great deal of thought, technical innovation and know-how have gone into their design and execution. They are a pleasure to listen to and a joy to mix with.
Key of course is the coincident driver, on which attention to detail is clearly evident. I’d go as far as to say it’s one of the best coincident driver designs around regardless of price. Paired with the equally adept bass driver, clever port design and the unique DSP, these monitors are capable of performance that would be perfectly acceptable in a monitor further up the price ladder, and can be considered quite extraordinary at their position not far from the bottom rung. I can’t recommend them enough.