This month we review 3 versions of the classic Auratone studio monitor: The original 5C Super Sound Cube, the Avantone MixCube, and the “Behritone” C5a by Behringer.
So many big, glossy studio monitors conspire to reassure you: “See? Isn’t sound just… So great? Aren’t you glad you have all of these nice things?” But unlike larger, full-range speakers, Auratone Super Sound Cubes would never lull you into a false sense of security. Like an all-too-honest best friend, they tell it like it is: “Listen. There’s only so much midrange to go around. What’s important in this mix? Stand up. Tell me. Make a decision. Dammit, for once in your life, choose!”
I’m in love with Auratone speakers and have been for years. When I started leaning on them heavily, every element of my mixes improved. Midrange clutter cleared up. Vocals and snare drums found their level, and kick drums and bass guitars learned to get along. Central sounds became bold, memorable and dynamic, while supporting ones found a sensible place to live. Auratones taught me how to do all that, and they’ve done the same for countless engineers.
If there is one piece of counter-intuitive advice I can give about mixing, it’s that your finished product will tend to sound like the inverse of your speakers. It’s simple really. If you listen on dark, murky-sounding speakers, your mixes are that much more likely to come out sounding thin and bright. If you listen on tight, brittle-sounding speakers, your mixes will tend to take on a character that’s muddy and veiled. And if you listen on big, impressive-sounding beasts with an extended top and impressive bottom end- well- it just might be the reason your mixes sometimes come across as dull, bland, cluttered, grey – homogenized. On the other hand, if you learn to rely on smaller speakers- ones that push the midrange forward- you may be surprised to hear just how massive and well-crafted your final results are when you fold up to the big speakers.
For decades, the Auratone 5C Super Sound Cubes have been one of the most popular choices to fill this niche in the studio. Now, as the cost of these long-discontinued monitors continues to rise on the vintage market, it’s no surprise that companies have begun coming out with their own reissues.
This month, we gathered all the major versions together in one room for a comprehensive listening test. In a moment, you’ll read a review of the Avantone MixCubes and the new “Behritone” C5a Monitors by Behringer and find out how they stacked up alongside the original. But first we’ll explore why this simple design has stayed relevant during the roughly 40 years since it was first introduced. It may not be why you think.
The Auratone 5C Super Sound Cube
Plenty of engineers have their own favorites when it comes to small, “real-world” speakers, and that’s a good thing. Auratones aren’t the only ones worth using, but they do some things that not every set of speakers are capable of. Even if you’re in search of your own personal “grot-boxes”, it’s important to know what made them such a successful design.
First, although they don’t reproduce extreme highs and lows, the mid-range frequencies they do deliver are remarkably well-balanced for making crucial mix decisions. The Auratones are very accurate, but they’re not razor-flat. One of their biggest selling points is that they have a relatively narrow sweet spot that discourages you from mixing too bright or too dark.
Secondly, they use a single woofer, so no mid-range frequencies are lost to the crossover circuity or phase-shift inherent in speakers that sport a tweeter.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Auratones’ sealed, single-woofer design means they’re free of strange resonances, in the low-end or anywhere else. Along with their focus on the mid-range, it’s this transient accuracy that makes them indispensable in helping mixers craft a bottom end that works anywhere.
Contrary to the common wisdom, the Auratones’ greatest strength was never in their ability to approximate an average listener’s system. Very few homes, cars or TV sets ever had speakers that sounded much like these. Like the ubiquitous Yamaha NS-10, Auratones work because they help lead mixers in the right direction, and because they remind us to focus on the choices that really matter.
Sure, the speakers have their detractors – but in my experience they tend to be either audiophile consumers or dilettante engineers with more capital than capacity. Every great mix engineer I’ve ever met knows the value of small grot-boxes like these. Even if they have their own favorites, if they use nicknames like “horrortones” and “awfultones”, it’s with affection, not derision.
The Avantone MixCubes
The people at Avantone and Alto Music were kind enough to lend me a pair of their new MixCubes. They know I’m a hard critic and a freak for the original Auratones, but I guess they believed their new take on the speakers would hold up. In a lot of ways, they were right.
I was impressed by the visual presentation right off the bat. I’ve used the Avantone MixCubes in many studios, and I’ve seen photos of them from all angles, but I had never noticed how well-detailed they were until I got up close and personal, holding one in my hand.
From the magenta heat sink in the back to the lettering on the front; from the custom power supply to the fleckless paint job, the active MixCubes are beautiful speakers. Although I initially thought a $480 street price seemed a little steep for such a simple design, finally examining them made me feel differently. Once you start to factor in that the passive versions sell for about $240 (barely more than a used pair of originals on a good day) it starts to seem like a pretty good value.
Still, what I was most interested in was the sound. The Avantones were designed to fill the niche of the original Auratone, but they’re not a straight remake. They go deeper, higher, and were designed to have an even flatter midrange response.
Out of the 3 sets of speakers I listened to, I have to admit that the Avantone MixCubes sounded the most “neutral.” I could probably listen to them all day without feeling like I was missing too much. Side-by-side with the originals, they sounded more relaxed, more open, and more extended. For their part, the classic Auratones sounded more upfront, and maybe a little “pinched” by comparison.
On paper, that probably sounds like a pretty clear vote for the Avantone MixCubes, but in practice I’m slightly less certainn. One of the biggest selling points of the original Auratones is that they make a cluttered midrange sound- well- really cluttered. This quality guides the mixer to reduce wasted space so that each instrument can make an impact. Also, that comparatively “pinched” of the original Auratones isn’t necessarily bad. If you push the upper midrange frequencies too hard, they’ll go from “pinched” to “strident” pretty fast, effectively penalizing you for mixing too bright.
I like these newer speakers by Avantone, but if I have one criticism, it’s that I’m afraid they would let me get away with too much. Thankfully, they still have the excellent transient response of the originals, and I’m sure their unique idiosyncrasies can be learned just as well.
The Behringer C5a looks a lot like the original Auratone, right down to the wood-paneled exterior. Because both the power supply and power amp are built in, it’s longer than either the original passive Auratone or the active Avantone. It also comes in a more modern version, the C50, which has a black finish and- like the Avantone- goes a little deeper and higher in frequency.
In sound, The Behritone C5a was the opposite of the Avantone in some ways. Where the Avantone sounded more open and extended than the originals, the Behritone 5Ca sounded even thicker, darker, and more “closed-in”.
It also lacked the super-clean transient response of both the Auratones and Avantones. Kick drums, snares, and bass guitars sounded a little sluggish by comparison, and I have my suspicion this has to do with the larger cabinet size. On top of that, the lower midrange was a little tubby and exaggerated for my tastes. I fear it would cause me to chase down and carve out resonances and midrange clutter that weren’t actually issues, potentially leading to more anemic-sounding mixes.
On the other hand, for those who fall prey to mixing far too dark (even on Auratones) the Behritones could be especially helpful. And at only a $100 street price for a single speaker, it’s miles better than not having a decent mono reference speaker at all.
It’s important to remember that the differences I’ve written about here aren’t night-and-day, but a matter of degree. Each of these speakers is successful in it’s own way: The Avantone for its neutral and extended sound, the Behritone for being extremely cost-effective, and the original Auratone for having an extremely narrow sweet-spot that encourages mix choices that have been proven to translate well.
The world can be a murky and uncertain place, and most beginners’ mixes reflect that. Auratones though, will never lie to you. They can’t. They’ll always steer you in the right direction – they’ll always make you choose between what’s important and what’s not.
Speakers like these are also responsible for two of the most satisfying moments that can happen in a mix session. First is the moment when – listening to playback and finally feeling that the mix sounds amazing – you suddenly realize that you’re still listening to those tiny boxes. Then, there’s that second, even more satisfying moment, when you switch to the big speakers and hear how your mix really sounds. It’s always more uplifting, and ultimately, more reliable than doing the reverse.
Avantone MixCubes are available for approximately $240 for a single active speaker or a passive speaker pair; and $480 for an active pair. Behringer’s active C5a and C50a are available for $100 per speaker and up. For those of you who like to DIY, you can also build your own Auratone clone.