Gear Reviews

Genelec 8381A Review: ‘The Ultimate Problem Solver’

Headliner descended on HHB Communications in North London to check out Genelec’s latest - and largest - studio monitor within its 8300 range, the 8381A.

Intimidating. Imposing. Massive. Just a few of the adjectives that came to mind when I sat down at the mix position in HHB’s tidy North London demo room, casting an eye on the huge 8381As for the first time ‘in the flesh’, so to speak.

These five-way floor-standing monitors are the largest in Genelec’s 8300 series of Smart Active Monitors, and feature bespoke coaxial HF/MF and quad 5-inch midrange drivers, along with a 15- inch low midrange woofer and dual 15-inch low woofer system - resulting in a multi-speaker ‘point source’ array that produces sound from a central point in space, with each speaker array being driven by two Genelec amp modules.

There is a width, height, and depth to these speakers that almost defies belief at times.

They are an evolution of the free-standing monitoring concept that the manufacturer first developed by combining The Ones and the W371A adaptive woofer system – but with even more headroom and LF extension – and on a personal level, I can’t speak highly enough about The Ones and the W371As, as they were recently deployed in Headliner’s brand new (and now certified) Dolby Atmos studio. High hopes indeed, then.

Aesthetically, you could be forgiven for thinking you’re looking at a mini PA stack - and the 8381As could certainly be used for live sound reinforcement - but after referencing some of my favourite tracks and mixes, the depth of sound, true transparency, and impressive short-term SPL of 126dB [at 1m] spoke for itself. These speakers quite simply possess next-level clarity.

What do I mean by that? In short: reverb tails seem far clearer (and longer); bass lines are rounder and certainly more definitive; and those songs with ‘present’ or ‘up front’ vocals tend to come to life in an almost impossible to describe manner - the voice is no longer in your face, it’s at the back of your throat, almost.

In terms of stereo image, the 8381As are exceptional. There is a width, height, and depth to these speakers that almost defies belief at times. Plus, there is a surprising delicacy to the sonics at low volume that is just as satisfying as blasting them for an hour without any significant fatigue. Well, almost… Because it’s when you start to really drive this system that it blows your mind: raw power, formidable low-end, and most importantly brutal accuracy. Furthermore, the lack of any kind of midrange horn also translated into a very smooth upper midrange which tempts you to keep turning it up just that little bit more. Dangerous? Maybe!

I played tracks from Jeff Buckley’s Grace album and realised not only just how spectacular the live band recording actually was, but that previously unheard elements were now audible: prior to this playback, I had been unaware that Buckley cleared his throat between vocal lines(!), and of course the monster verb in iconic tracks like Lilac Wine and his take on Cohen’s Hallelujah was wider, fuller, and more cohesive.

I flicked through more go-to reference tracks - from Radiohead to Kanye, with a bit of Springsteen’s wonderfully engineered new record in the mix - and quite literally found myself lost in music. The analogue sound of the two bands shone bright, and the sharpness of Kanye’s unique and crystal clear production on Black Skinhead was punching me in places I didn’t know I could be punched. Play anything that isn’t well put together (there may have been a couple of temporary lapses into powder pop sobriety) and the 8381As will chew it up and spit it out, of course - and rightly so.

But how practical are they? Well, the ‘ideal’ spot for your main monitors is traditionally built into the studio walls, permanently focused at the optimum listening position. But herein lies the drawback: often fixed and in situ means there’s no way to manoeuvre or reconfigure your recording and mix environment; in other words, it is what it is, and will always be. So in today’s world of flexible multi-purpose, multi-format facilities, a moveable, fully configurable freestanding main monitor option that can be both mid and nearfield could just be the ultimate problem solver.

Calibration is performed by Genelec’s GLM 5 software, and each pair of 8381As includes a 9320A Reference Controller which is a terrific piece of kit. This setup allows users to create multiple presets which could be, for example, for different rooms should engineers request a specific set of monitors, or the same room but different configurations: you might want a stereo pair for tracking, and then perhaps a Dolby Atmos setup incorporating that stereo pair.

Engineers may even want to change the sound in subtle ways to emulate other working environments they are more familiar with; even changing the mix environment by putting a new sofa in a control room can alter the acoustic character of the room, so the ability to measure, compare and affect changes quickly and effectively when needed is definitely a bonus in today’s fast-paced music and content creation driven world.

So yeah, I get the floor standing design - and I also love the simplicity of the angle options so the speakers can be more accurately focused at the engineer for the optimum listening position. This creates a very impressive sweet spot which actually sounds like more of a ‘sweet area’.

This is something engineers and producers working as a team will certainly appreciate because in reality, getting up and taking a pace left or right of centre had very little effect on what is a wide and coherent stereo image, something that is not apparent in many other speaker systems.

In summary, the 8381As are seriously impressive, potent speakers that produce a really beautiful open sound. The weight and depth of the low mids and bass sound is impressive as any super high-end wall speakers I’ve heard, and the sub bass - which is normally more of a feel thing in my experience - is remarkably well-defined, making it way easier than normal to pick out individual notes within that sub-frequency range. Add to that the ability to mix quietly and accurately at such close proximity, and those all-revealing sparkling highs, then what’s not to love?