You may have heard comments like, “50% of video is audio,” or “Sound quality is what separates an okay film from a great film.” If you’ve worked in video production for any length of time, you’ve probably run into issues stemming from the fact that your clients and customers will be listening to your projects on systems ranging from internal laptop speakers to 5.1 home theater surround sound setups. One viewer might tell you the music is so loud that it drowned out the dialogue, and another viewer might watch (read “listen to”) the same project and tell you that they could hardly hear the music at all.
This is, quite naturally, an even bigger issue in music production, which is why good recording/mixing/mastering studios usually have several different sets of speakers through which they can check a sound mix. For the typical “Crew of One” who is shooting and editing by himself or herself, however, that type of setup is often impractical and financially inaccessible.
One of the very first pieces of audio equipment you should invest in is a decent pair of headphones. I use and recommend the Sony MDR-7506, which are more or less the standard for broadcast production (as opposed to film production … Those guys use headphones that cost more than my car). They are rugged, reliable, and very, very accurate. In a pinch, they can certainly be used for editing as well, if your only other option is the internal speaker in your computer.
However, if you use headphones for audio editing, you must be VERY careful! In the same way that holding something right up to your face allows you to see minute details, putting speakers right next to your ears allows you to hear different sounds with a lot more clarity than the typical viewer, who will NOT be using headphones. For this reason, it’s worthwhile to consider getting a decent audio monitoring setup for your video editing.
I recently had the opportunity to evaluate the Audioengine N22 Desktop Audio Amplifier, paired with the Audioengine P4 Passive Speakers, which is a great example of the type of system that is ideal for the small video editing suite.
According to their website, Audioengine USA was founded in 2002 “to design and build high quality studio monitor speakers at affordable prices for the pro-audio market.” In 2005, the company discovered that their technology would port extremely well to bookshelf speakers for the home market, and a new business model was born.
Audioengine USA has a small but nice variety of products, ranging from digital-to-analog converters to wireless audio adapters. But, their core products are modular speakers and amplifiers that can be mixed and matched in several configurations.
The typical computer audio setup is a pair of small, active speakers (“active” means the amplifier is built into the speakers, as opposed to being separate), plus a subwoofer. The subwoofer supplements the bass sound that the physically small woofer cones on a bookshelf speaker are incapable of producing (this is, basically, because the intensity of a low-frequency sound depends largely on how much air is being moved. A big thing moves a lot of air and makes a big boom, and a small thing moves a little bit of air and makes a small boom). Audioengine provides this setup, with their A5+ 5″ speakers and their AS8B powered subwoofer.
But, I’ll be honest, I’m old school. By old school, I mean that I like the traditional audiophile setup of a modular amplifier and a stereo set of passive (not-powered) speakers. It doesn’t have the convenience of powered speakers, and it doesn’t have the gut-rumbling impact of a system with a subwoofer (although you can certainly add a subwoofer to it – Audioengine USA proudly states that all their components are tuned to work well with each other, in any configuration), but it is very flexible (because you can upgrade the amp or the speakers separately), and – more importantly for our purposes – it is ACCURATE. By accurate, I mean that when you are editing sound, and you are listening to what you’re doing on a setup like this, you are hearing something as close to objective reality as possible. Nothing is being added to the signal (think of the people who turn the bass all the way up in their car stereos … They’re not hearing an accurate rendition of the music they’re listening to), and nothing is being subtracted. If something is muddy, muffled, or has an echo, you’ll hear it. If it isn’t, you won’t.
Right out of the box, I liked these little guys. The N22 amplifier has one big volume knob on the front, a power indicator lamp, and a headphone jack. That’s it. No muss, no fuss, no clutter. There’s no EQ or pan/fade settings because you don’t need ‘em. What you hear is what you get, and there’s no messing with it.
The back of the amplifier has some impressively robust speaker connections which, according to the user manual, will accommodate “bare wire, banana plugs, spade lugs, or pin terminators,” your choice of RCA or 1/8″ inputs, and RCA output plugs for a subwoofer or wireless adapter. It also has a USB power port for charging your phone. That really has nothing to do with audio, but it’s just a little courtesy from the designers to let you know they’re thinking of you.
The speaker cabinets are quite handsome, with a bare front (no mesh covering), and, at 9″x5.5″x6.5″ fit nicely onto a typical desktop or shelf. The back of the cabinets sport the same rugged connectors as the amplifier, and – once again – that’s it. There’s nothing else to fool around with, and nothing to get confused by. Just plug the wires in, and get to work.
The sound of the speakers is clean, crisp, and – in a word – restrained. In a good way. Sarah Vaughan didn’t do vocal acrobatics like Christina Aguilera, not because she couldn’t, but because she had restraint. In the same way, these are not speakers that are going to “blow a woman’s clothes off” like the ones Seth Green’s character in “The Italian Job” wanted, but they are by no means weak. If you turn the amplifier all the way up, they will produce a painful level of sound, with no evident distortion. But, that’s not really what they’re for. If you want to DJ a wedding, you’re going to get something else. No, these are speakers for listening to whatever is on your computer, and for that purpose, they are superb.
These setup isn’t exactly cheap, but it’s not completely inaccessible either. The amp costs around $199, and the speakers cost about $250. Considering the quality they offer, and the fact that you shouldn’t have to replace them for decades, that’s actually a pretty good deal. If you’re serious about hearing what you’re doing, you might want to seriously consider something from the Audioengine USA line of products.
Whether you go for the powered speakers or the passive speakers, and whether you add a subwoofer or not, you’ll be working with a system that represents a level of quality and efficiency that, in many ways, has become unfamiliar to those of us who work with computers and cameras that never seem to be quite good enough, and that need to be replaced every couple of years. This, at least, IS good enough, and will NOT need to be replaced anytime soon.