Date: 1978Designer: Akira NakamuraCost: $400 (today $1,300 or £750)
There was a time when you couldn't open a professional audio magazine without seeing a photograph of a record producer looking out over the control room mixing desk in what has become the classic studio pose. The producer would invariably be leaning with his arms folded over a horizontally oriented loudspeaker with a distinctive white cone.
This iconic white circle meant only one thing: the studio was equipped with Yamaha NS-10 reference monitors (studio speak for loudspeakers). In the 1970s, when the NS-10 first hit the audio market, everything in the studio was black. Recording desks looked pretty, with a multitude of knobs, sliding faders and blinking lights, but speakers were big, with black cones, making it impossible to get a good photograph of a control room interior.
Reference monitors need to be placed in the most optimal position for the recording engineer: horizontally on the meter bridge. At this height, visually the NS-10s "were a gift" says Tim Goodyer, studio technology expert and editor of the pro-audio website fastandwide.com.
Yamaha's NS-10s started life as a hi-fi speaker but flopped in the home audio market, primarily because they sounded too real. If there were errors in the audio mix, they were immediately exposed, which professionals realised could be an advantage. At the time there were major upheavals in the music recording industry: the stranglehold of big-room studios with expensive equipment was being challenged by digital technology, tapeless recording, MIDI, and a host of faster, cheaper and portable alternatives.
The NS-10 was an ideal reference monitor for this new wave of technology: it ticked all the boxes and looked good. For the travelling engineer it was easy to transport your NS-10s from the home studio and plug into a professional set-up, knowing that what you were listening to was the same. This, Goodyer says, "gave you a proper, solid reference point. It didn't really matter that they weren't the nicest speakers to listen to. Once you got used to them, they became not only a great reference, but they had the advantage of being ubiquitous".
Where the NS-10 fell short in its role as a professional loudspeaker is simply that it wasn't very good. One of the first mainstream engineers to use it seriously - Bob Clearmountain, of Bruce Springsteen production fame – did so because he wanted to hear what his recordings sounded like on the "worst speakers in the world". NS-10s were deficient at the bass end, while frequency response throughout the spectrum was uneven to the point where studio engineers taped tissue paper over the tweeter to even out an over-bright response at the treble end. In a professional world, where reference monitors were supposed to tell you exactly what was on tape, the NS-10s imposed subjectivity on the recording. "The engineer's job," says Goodyer, "was to learn the character of a speaker that wasn't really an analytical tool."
Why did the NS-10s become an industry standard? The simplicity of design. The real genius of the speaker was that it was a 'closed box', which ensured that the time alignment was good, making it very phase-coherent. It was also, in terms of distortion, a very 'clean' speaker.
Yamaha ceased production of the NS-10s in 2001 having produced more than 200,000 pairs of the most famous studio monitors ever made. Goodyer says that their demise has left a hole in the market that no manufacturer has yet filled.