Review: Air Tight MSM-1 Bonsai Monitor
The Japanese Air Tight company is known for high quality tube electronics with prices to match. The amps go well into five figures, so when I heard that Air Tight also made a speaker I was sure it would be unaffordable. Wrong! It cost $1250 ($1500 as of January 2012). Why is that? How could a speaker that (relatively) cheap be good enough to wear the brand and, presumably, be connected to Air Tight electronics? Could there possibly be a bargain here—or was it an attempt to sell the speaker on the sole basis of the name?
There’s not much online about the Air Tight MSM-1. A gentleman in Asia gave it a very short review. It was complimentary—he seemed to like everything but the connectors. After finding that one online, I came across a local magazine piece. The writer had received an Air Tight package for review, including amp and MSM-1s, but he had made up his mind that the speakers wouldn’t do justice to the amp and apparently he hadn’t bothered to listen to them. Well I did listen, and after the audition, I bought a pair. I was convinced the MSM-1s would fit my small bedroom system even better than my $1K Triangle monitors, and they do. And unlike the other guy, I will tell you why.
A little bit about the speaker physically, first. They have a name as well as a number: MSM stands for Micro Studio Monitor, but you can call them Bonsais. Now you have a clue to their size! Their longest dimension is height, just under 10 inches of it, which is about the width of my Triangle Titus Es monitors’ front baffle. You can’t get a lot of bass out of that, so the rest of the spectrum had better be good.
The boxes are not regular rectangles, which is a good sign. The top is swept up at the back, and the back and sides are a single panel which curves into a narrow ellipse at the rear. The connectors, the ones the other online reviewer didn’t like, have to be small, to fit into the narrowest part of that curve without compromising the structure of the box. Nevertheless they are high quality 3-ways with a plastic cap, like miniature WBTs, and they held my Furutech spades tight. Enclosure dimensions are 165 x 140 x 245 mm. Each speaker weighs a little under five pounds!
The shape of the enclosure is a pleasing one, with that gentle upsweep and smooth curve. There’s a port in the front, under the silvery 4” driver. Top, bottom and front baffle are solid wood, while the curved body appears to be ply. The woodwork gets to me; I think it’s gorgeous. It would go with any furniture, antique or modern. The colour is a warm coppery brown, the finish is perfectly sanded and rubbed to a low sheen, so you can see into the grain. Nice to the touch. The tiny groove between the top piece and the box body is exactly the same width and depth all around. The sculptured form is nice to hold and look at, and it also means there are no parallel sides to favour standing waves in the box. The enclosures look as though they were made by someone who respects not only good audio engineering, but also a serious tradition of wood craftsmanship.
This review is based on a real live comparison with two sets of ears. My pal Vaqar knows what good gear can do for music and he very kindly agreed to help out. We listened together, using the same preselected set of tunes for each speaker pair, first to my Triangle Titus Es. Then we subbed in the Bonsais and noted our impressions.
The system amp is an Audio Space AS-3i EL-34 tube integrated, set via its front panel switches to run in quadrilinear output mode with minimum negative feedback. The system has been tweaked with footers, AC cords, NOS tubes and vibration dampers and power is conditioned by two Topaz ultra-isolation transformers. The source is the analog output of a PURE i-20 iPod dock. ( The i-20’s inboard DAC is surprisingly good considering the price of the unit. For a more musical quality, I would have used my Stellavox ST-2, but at the moment it’s back in Switzerland for repair. )
Music files were Red Book and 24/48, loaded on a 64 GB iPod Touch 3G. The speakers were placed on Charisma Audio Function stands and isolated with Herbie’s Audio Labs Grungebuster dots. The Function stands have a large and solid central pedestal and a 4-inch top plate, and the Bonsais on top of those looked like they were wearing clown pants.
The first piece was the adagio from Mozart’s Sonata for keyboard and violin, KV303. Played by Rachel Podger and Gary Cooper, it’s a 24/96 download from HDTracks. Our version was redithered and downsampled to 24/48 for the iPod, using the iZotope algorithms in Sample Manager software from Audiofile Engineering.
Podger, the violinist, says that she and Cooper went for the heart in these performances, not for virtuosity and showmanship. Original instruments are used, with Gary Cooper playing a fortepiano, which is the kind of instrument Mozart would have composed with. It has a slower attack and a shorter decay than a modern piano, and a distinctive, less ringing tone. Both speakers portrayed the violin clearly without stridency, the notes well separated and the two instruments well defined. Where Vaqar found the Bonsais’ highs a little overdone and the overall sound dry, I enjoyed the impression of a a more energetic delivery, and the lighter touch on the keyboard which is typical of the fortepiano’s sound. I heard an echo when the piece began that showed the dimensions of the recording space, and also more detail on the violin strings. Vaqar preferred the Tituses on this piece for the extra weight they gave the fortepiano.
What really impressed me in this first piece was the extra insight the Bonsais provided into the skill of the musicians. They just seemed to play better, especially in the arpeggios, which were anything but draggy. The Tituses have a 5.25-inch woofer and are in fact quite lively-sounding speakers, and it was curious to me to find that they seemed slower than the Bonsais.
Our next piece was for keyboards again, two of them this time. It was the Quarrel movement from Prokofiev’s Cinderella ballet suite, arranged for two (modern) pianos by Mikhail Pletnev and played by him and Martha Argerich. The performers go for virtuosity here—thirty-second notes cascade in extended, rapid fire. The Tituses had good rhythm, pace and scale, thought Vaqar. Piano attack, very hard to reproduce at all, was convincing. Where the Bonsais lost the two pianos’ lower register, the Tituses produced enough of it, but Vaqar was impressed with the Bonsais’ detail and dynamics, and their large soundstage. I heard the echo of the recording space once again when the Bonsais played, and the sound of somebody moving on the piano bench about 60 seconds into the piece. Much more important than this, the Bonsais showed me that those rapid-fire notes were going somewhere. They weren’t just fast, they ebbed and flowed with a musical sense that I hadn’t heard with the Tituses.
By now we thought we’d found the Bonsais’ weakness: in the bass, which would be predictable, given the extra-small cabinet. But the third piece held a surprise for us. This one was Oxford Town, a live recording of Bert Jansch’s group Pentangle, from a German tour in the 1990s. The electric bass on this track was too much for the Triangles’ woofer, and Vaqar noted that it got into a flap at the low end of its range. The mids were more opaque too. Jacqui McShee’s ultrapure soprano was partly hidden by the instrumentation and her lyrics were hard to understand. When the Bonsais took over, the bass, although greatly attenuated, actually became easier to follow, and the harmonies which the bass line supported made more sense. McShee’s voice was smoother and more intelligible. There was a very satisfying snap and decay on the steel guitar strings and the smack of the snare drum. The soundstage was wider too. We both preferred the Bonsais’ version of this song.
We liked the Bonsais better on the next piece too: Mimè ! Speravo di trovari qui, from a La Scala production of La Bohème conducted by Ricardo Chailly and starring Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna, a couple in real life. Perhaps there would be some chemistry….
What we heard was a speaker that wasn’t fazed by complex loud orchestral passages. Ms. Gheorghiu plays the tubercular Mimi and her scripted but realistic coughs had a natural chest sound, more so than with the Triangles. Her soprano crescendos were also convincing, with a completely clear and unforced upper register. We could also hear her husband get a little shouty when he went loud, and this was clearly the singer, not the speaker. The dynamic reserve and headroom of this tiny monitor were really impressive. With this and the extra detail, it was as though we were closer to the performers.
The next piece, Irving Berlin’s I Got Lost In His Arms, from a Sheffield recording, is a reference for imaging and detail. It is also consummately well sung by Margie Gibson. It can make me forget to take notes when it’s well reproduced. Vaqar was hearing it for the first time and these notes were his shortest for the test. He praised the tonal balance, the uncolored voice and the weight of the cello with the Tituses. With the Bonsais, though, he praised the naturalness of the voice… with two exclamation points. I felt the same way. There was extra detail audible, and that let me hear new meaning in Ms. Gibson’s technique, for example an extra velvety emphasis on the word “go” in “There you go,” which implied the singer’s abandonment to falling in love. It was an intense experience. Although the accompanying cello’s weight was reduced, its musical line was still apparent and Vaqar called its sound very intimate.
Finally we listened to Mike Marshall and Chris Thile play their J. S. Batch Dm Gigue, from their Live Duets album. These two mandolinists are so together on this recording that they sound like one musician. It was new to Vaqar and he liked the Titus’ rendition of the highs, the detail and microdynamics. I noticed a feeling of performance space and dimensionality to the instruments, although the players are hard left and right on this recording. Still, one more time the Bonsais were a clear winner, providing all we had noted with the other speakers and adding a sense of musical flow in extremely tight counterpoint that was so beautifully done it seemed easy. Vaqar wrote a one-word note: “Fabulous!!”
If you were looking for small speakers around this price point, the Triangle Titus and the Air Tight Bonsai could easily go on the same list of possibilities (although the Bonsais have risen to $1500 since this test sesion). This model of the Titus, the Es, is discontinued. The newer Titus has a slightly different tweeter and a smaller box, with a bass limit a little higher up than the one we listened to, but a size easier to fit into some spaces. If the Bonsais’ limited bass were a deal-breaker, the Triangles’ extra extension might do the trick. However if you can live with the absence of bass and the weight it gives to music, the extra transparency, speed, detail, liveliness and sheer musicality of the Bonsais alone are such a treat that they might give you all the satisfaction you needed.
Until… until what? Until you could add a small subwoofer! Actually, that would be the wrong word for it. It’s not the almost-subsonic sounds you want to fill in, but the low and midbass plus some headroom. A woofer then, a small one, perhaps one of the mini-subs available from makers like REL, Definitive Technology or Velodyne. I have not yet heard the Bonsais with one of these, but there’s no reason to think such a setup would have to be a sonic compromise over full-range floorstanders. One of the hardest things to do in a full-range speaker is control the influence of the woofer output on a tweeter in the same enclosure. Separate the woofer and a big problem is solved.
The Bonsais were a flyer for me. I had no particular reason to think I would like them, but the combination of the Air Tight name and the insouciance of one reviewer annoyed and intrigued me enough that I wanted to hear them. The second system is in a truly very small room, and even the Tituses felt large in there, so size mattered. And I loved the cabinet woodwork. But I wasn’t expecting the Bonsais’ sweetness and musicality.
I do have another, more sophisticated system with floorstanding speakers whose useful output goes down below 35 Hz. It’s in a family room, and when that room is occupied, I go and listen in the bedroom. Recently, sometimes I’ve been choosing the bedroom even when the living room is free. The only problem is now I can’t sleep when the music is playing, because it’s too interesting. And I ask myself, when I’ve saved up enough for a woofer for the Bonsais, will I need to keep my main speakers at all?
In review text
Totem Mite, Visonik David, RS Minimus 7, NHT Models Zero and One, various small monitors incl. Triangle Titus Es