Audiofilia AF-SM1 Monitor Speakers Review


Audiofilia AF-SM1The Audiofilia AF-SM1 monitor speakers look beautiful, and they sound beautiful. These compact detail monsters produce a reference signature that is near on perfect, have a naturally expansive soundstage, pin drop resolution, slightly tamed transience, superb translation, and are very easy and adaptive to work with. Regardless of genre, the AF-SM1’s will perform without quarrel and are best suited to professional environments. Most of all, they are a bargain.

Introduction, The “S” System, and Customisation:

Created in 2011 by the acoustical engineer Alessio Paolizzi and electronics designer Francesso Stocchi, Audiofilia is an high end Italian speaker manufacturer that handcrafts all of their products around a ‘revolutionary’ patent pending “S” system reflex port design. According to Audiofilia “this unique technology allows the realization of speakers with surprising sonic and techniques characteristics, transforming the entire speaker in a real musical instrument contributing with every part at the final sound.” If we put this into perspective, Audiofilia do use very high end drivers and internally lab built crossovers but, contrary to almost every other pair of speakers out there, the team use their proprietary “S” physical-pneumatic system so that the cabinets sympathetically resonate with the drivers, instead of relying upon the external environment to create the fullness of sound. The apparent benefits of this unique approach is that everything is done in the box, essentially meaning that Audiofilia can organically control the sound, to deliver natural low end frequencies, and I’ve even found that their speakers can overcome poor acoustical placement because of this. For a deeper understanding of how exactly the “S” system works, it’s best to head over to the Audiofilia website. They have a section named ‘Technology’ which discusses the design that took twenty years of development, in great length.

With Audiofilia producing both monitors and Hi-Fi speakers, from bookshelf designs to full blown floor standers, as well as a few amplifiers, today we shall be taking an in-depth look at their entry level Pro Audio passive monitor speakers – The AF-SM1’s. Please note that the AF-SM1 monitors are intended to be a workhorse for for critical listening applications in the recording studio or mastering house and, as such, exhibit strong reference characteristics. The review model that we have received is the €2240 standard passive version, therefore it requires external amplification, however you can customise the AF-SM1 monitors to have built in amplification, and swap the silk dome for a ribbon tweeter design. If, for some reason, you choose to swap to the ribbon tweeter model Audiofilia will not charge you, although you have to bare in mind that ribbons typically have a sharper pristine edge to them that can bring on listening fatigue much earlier. However, if you choose to make the AF-SM1’s into active monitors with a Class D amplifier, something that Audiofilia does not recommend due to the fact that it changes their reference characteristics, this will come at a cost of €1000 per pair (€3240) – a rather fair price tag in my opinion. Whilst I cannot comment on how these different approaches will impact the sound signature, I feel confident enough to prematurely state that their standard monitor configuration is certainly impressive. If you are someone who requires a more sculpted ‘easy listening’ tone, your best bet is to take a look at the SM1’s sister product – the Hi-Fi tuned ‘AF-S1’ speakers.

Unboxing, Build Quality, and Suggestions:

In terms of shipping, Audiofilia ship the AF-SM1’s in a compact box that houses a single pair. Inside the monitors are held secure with a standard polystyrene foam cradle and are loosely covered with a polystyrene material. Apart from both monitors, the only other inclusion is an owners manual that details such topics as placement, wiring, and bi-amplification techniques so, all in all, the unboxing of the AF-SM1’s packaging is unremarkable.

Having carefully unpacked both speakers, it’s immediately clear that the Audiofilia AF-SM1’s are an exceptionally well made and flawlessly finished pair of monitors. As I examine the piano black surface of the pair that I received, I cannot notice any pitting of the finish, any inconsistencies along the edges of the cabinet, any textural inconsistencies upon the surface, or any blemishes whatsoever, in fact what you do get is a highly refined and reflective glazed mirror presentation that is in keeping with both high quality craftsmanship, and the retail price of the AF-SM1’s. Whilst I find the piano black finish against the AF badge, Seas woofer, and Morel tweeter to be aesthetically gorgeous, particularly with that bullet copper dust cap, if you are looking for something different with a more custom edge, Audiofilia will hand craft your monitors in a range of wood or lacquer finishes for absolutely no fee so long as its within their standard repertoire – now that’s generosity! Although with a pair of speakers the sound quality should always come first, Audiofilia have succeeded in producing a WOW design that certainly makes a statement unlike any other monitor speaker I’ve come across. The AF-SM1’s actually look more like a pair of very expensive HiFi speakers and almost everyone comments on their classic classy appearance. However, if you are looking for a pair of hardy monitors that can withstand ‘challenging’ clients, it should be noted that the AF-SM1’s do not come with any grille faceplates, but Audiofilia can make them for you. With this said most prospective purchasers will know that monitors with grilles have been slowly fading away over the past few years, so this really isn’t a crunch point… unless you happen to cater for high risk individuals, or want them to operate in a challenging environments such as educational institutions where you will need them to be present.

Considering the technology inside of the AF-SM1’s, Audiofilia have managed to keep the 6” woofer with 1” tweeter near-field design down to a comfortable footprint that fits well on the workbench and can also feel at home in space limited environments. Overall we’re looking at a space take-up similar to that of the Dynaudio BM6a’s or KRK VXT6’s, which really isn’t too bad at all – it’s 30cm x 29cm x 19cm. Sure you will need an external amplifier to go with these monitor speakers and my recommendation, in limited environments, would be to take a look at some rack mountable options even if the market is, again, limited in this area. The other option is that you could just go with a super compact amplifier such the Chord Electronics ‘Scamp’, which I have found works very well with the AF-SM1’s in a reference setting. What I do find slightly annoying is that the AF-SM1’s only come with some attached silicone feet that are similar to that you expect to find on the inside of a kitchen door cupboard. It is my personal understanding that these feet are inadequate and would instead recommend the IsoAcoustics L8R200 monitor speaker stands – the same that I have used to judge the sonic qualities of these monitors. Audiofilia do argue in their manual that these feet are designed to “agree with the project philosophy that characterises Audiofilia speakers”, ie. the speaker must be free to vibrate similar to a musical instrument, but, again, I have found that the L8R200 stands produce favourable results. By all means you can attach speaker spikes to the AF-SM1’s, but this is not recommended and I have not had an opportunity to analyse their effect.

Because of the AF-SM1’s rear firing bass reflex port, it is advisable that the monitors are positioned as far away from the back wall as possible. By doing this you will inhibit the room effect caused by any powerful bass frequencies that reflect off the back wall which, again, will contradict the ’S’ systems purpose of providing a natural bass tone and will ultimately effect the listening experience to some degree. Personally I have found that I am able to position the AF-SM1’s closer to the wall than any other monitor speaker that I’ve tested without too much detriment, which is why I mentioned earlier that it seems as if the ’S’ system helps overcome poor room acoustics and placement. Still, this is no consolation and the optimum position should be observed to yield the best possible sonic results. Even though they are designed like an acoustic instrument, it is noted that these speakers don’t furiously vibrate. Instead they modestly resonate in sympathy to the driver output.

If we turn the speakers around to their rear what we notice is that there are four high quality gold plated binding posts that support bi-amplification and can cater for banana plugs, spade connectors, or standard unterminated wire. There are no cable recommendations listed, and none are included, but I highly recommend The Chord Company’s ‘Epic Twin’ speaker cable for its unique qualities that can be found within our previous review. I found that when using the Chord Factory Terminated banana plugs that there was an exceptionally tight fitting which confirms that there is a nice operational connection between the two. In terms of the binding post linkage the AF-SM1’s come with a fairly standard bar attached, but, if you would like to increase the timing and coherence, I would highly recommend replacing this standard linkage with your own DIY high quality linkages made out of better quality cable or maybe even something like The Chord Company’s ‘Signature’ speaker links. Moe importantly though, Audiofilia offer a huge ten year warranty with all of their speakers, so you can be safe in the knowledge that your investment is wise.

Review Technology and Burn-In:

Lossless tracks varying from 44.1kHz to 192kHz and 16bit to 24bit, MacBook Air Mid 2013 i7, iBasso DX90, IsoAcoustics ‘ISO-L8R155’, ARCAM ‘irDAC’, Schiit ‘Ragnarok’, Chord Electronics ‘Scamp’, Chord Electronics ‘Hugo’, The Chord Company ‘Signature Tuned ARAY’, The Chord Company ‘Cadenza Reference’, The Chord Company ‘Epic Twin’, CAD ‘USB’, Lynx ‘Hilo’, and Custom Channel D ‘¼” adapter to RCA’.

With the AF-SM1’s, Audiofilia recommend a whopping three-hundred hours burn-in stretch and, from the months and hundreds of hours that I have spent with this brand new pair, I can confirm that this is indeed true to some extent. The reason for this is that my subjective findings appeared to show that the AF-SM1’s in fact reached a performance plateau at around sixty hours, where anything past this point yielded a minor +5% difference primarily in the sub-bass extension, and fluidity of the mid to high treble frequencies. If you’re interested in the descriptive of these monitors before my recommended burn-in time has been completed, I would say that they sound; too etched and transient in the treble region, are very edgy and cold sounding, certainly favour the treble region on a titled slope, have a boxy low to mid-midrange presence and lack coherence, don’t extend down well, have no sub or mid-bass presence, and generally sound flat and textureless. Thankfully all you need to do to make these monitors sing is burn them in for my recommended sixty hours and they will unfold to reveal something beautiful.

In order to present my impressions of the AF-SM1 monitors I will mainly use Sonic Studio’s ‘Amarra’ as it provides a listening experience on par with the Pro Tools and Logic Pro DAW’s (Digital Audio Workstation), with the Chord Electronics ‘Hugo’ DAC, The Chord Company ‘Signature Tuned ARAY’ RCA, Chord Electronics ‘Scamp’ amplifier, and The Chord Company’s ‘Epic Twin’ speaker cable. I have found that this setup provides superior reference quality sound, although the other setup options and my impressions of their sonic abilities will be discussed later within the ‘Sound Quality’ section.

Sound Quality:

Sonically, I have found the AF-SM1’s to be a massive success. Here are a pair of monitors that provide a texture rich, coherent, and focussed listening experience, in a near to mid-field environment, with a dry flat frequency profile, and vast image that is almost untainted by placement. The overriding transparency of the SM1’s places them well within the limits of what is expected from a pair of monitor speakers, and it’s easy to confirm that their ideal placement is within a professional critical listening environment, or even in the home of an HiFi enthusiast with a more neutral discerning palate. Whilst the above is categorically true in pairing with the correct equipment, I’ve discovered that you can use the AF-SM1’s as a sort of neutral blank HiFi canvas. For example, you can pair the SM1’s with [ideally] darker or [not so ideally] brighter DACs and/or Amps to carve and create various tonal characteristics. The level headed detail monster vibe, and its linear predictable nature, affords the user with a certain level of creativity over the SM1’s output to match their personal sonic preference without taking too much of a gamble with regards to tonal synergy. Put it this way, the the AF-SM1’s are a truly flexible pair of monitors but, regardless, we’ll now continue with our reference system pairing to generate a relevant descriptive.

In the treble region the AF-SM1’s seem to deliver two modestly differentiating characteristics which act in various frequency boundaries. The first boundary that I would like to discuss is the low and mid-high range. In this area the frequencies seem to be very coherent and highly accurate, albeit with a sense of focused hyper-realisism. Because of this it’s easy to pinpoint troublesome frequencies within the mix, particularly with complex vocal performances, but you do have to beware that this tight refined modest-dryness can lead you to overcompensate with reverb. Coming back onto the descriptive now, the low to mid-high range does still appear very transparent, it just doesn’t have any overriding lusciousness or round bloated qualities that would make this a more Hi-Fi listening experience. Within this area I’ve found that the forwardness still retains a good dynamic, although not striking, contrast between the micro and macro details, so you are able to accurately isolate specific frequencies which can be a cause for concern and perform the speedy seek and destroy EQ technique with pin sharp accuracy. With the above descriptive it might come across that the low and mid-high range frequencies might be harsh, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Sure they’re on point in all the right ways, never appear hazy, and have an excellent presence, but they are completely free of any edginess, don’t appear overly refined, are not overly transient, or spikey. I would have to say that this is a multifaceted distortion free experience and, although the low to mid-high range frequencies appear transparent, they seem to have a very mild delicate sweetness that is in the perfect measure to take the edge off things, without overly saturating or masking the complex frequencies in this area. If we pay attention to the upper to super-high frequency range, the AF-SM1’s do retain the same-ish composure as the low to mid-high range, the difference here is that the frequencies are much dryer and loose a bit of that sweetness that we just discussed. This is an area that is more matter of fact and doesn’t hold a huge sense of air unless you put it in the mix, but it sounds so good. The detail that can be heard here is ridiculous, I just think that you can loose some of the subtlety that you get lower down the spectrum – it’s best to remember that this is neutral not natural. I would definitely say that this is an area with excellent timing, because you’re able to hear the dynamic detail that you need to hear and it makes gating a dream. You’re able to produce some incredibly coherent results that translate well and can get those crisp audiophile mixes better than I’ve heard before with any other monitor speaker. Again I do have to reinforce that this is an area that is 100% free of harshens, glassiness, or sibilance. Sure the frequencies extend up into the stratosphere, but in the process of critical listening you won’t succumb to listening fatigue for hours. Personally I’ve had sessions with these speakers that lasts around eight hours and I am still happy to continue.

In terms of transience ie. dynamic contrast, as touched on before, the treble region does have a good range, although I wouldn’t go as far as ‘excellent’. It’s as good as they should be for the price, but there should be a touch more depth to it to achieve a more expansive contrast. When we get up into the high to super-high range this is an area where the frequencies are a little more compressed and I would prefer for them to be a bit more open instead of having a flatter approach. Regardless, the trebles are quick to react and do feel very light on their feet with no noticeable distortion or glossy edges.

As we arrive into the midrange I, personally, find this area to be rather beautiful. It has an overriding sweet, rich, and luscious tone which is noticeably natural in comparison to those neutral slightly dryish trebles. You may now be thinking ‘how can that work?’, but it does… and very well. Although the upper mids appear sweeter than the lower mids, they seem to gradually blend into the low-trebles in such a logical way that you aren’t drawn to the tonal and textural differences. Likewise, mixing vocals, pianos, and guitars is a dream, where the SM1’s deliver superior depth and saturation with a massive fun sense of realism. The focus is clearly there with a faithful smooth musical edge that feels emotive and right to the ears. Whether that extra sweetness in the high-midrange is welcome in a critical listening environment is questionable, maybe if it was maybe 1dB or 2dB less I would feel happier, still I’ve found them to be a joy to work with. In comparison to the trebles, the midrange is an area which feels much more dynamically uncompressed and has a less ‘in your face attitude’ than the high to super-high end. It’s free of edginess and doesn’t try to be overly light on it’s feet, instead it hovers right in the middle, which is perfect for what they’re trying to be – open and full. Thankfully you don’t seem to get too much bleeding amongst the range so, in terms of contrast, the SM1’s appear consistent and naturally articulate without any artificial nonsense of super artificial blacks and super whites without an expansive contrast. You’ll also be pleased to know that there are no moments throughout the midrange where any frequencies appear more compressed than any another and, additionally, the range never becomes hazy, dull, or boxy. Having just mentioned the ‘boxy’ descriptive I would like to pay attention to the, usually, troublesome low-midrange section. In this area, there is a consistent luscious clarity throughout that continues to sound natural and punchy, which compliments the bass frequencies well in a non-aggressive, yet peaceful, way. In total the midranges transient nature follows the eb and flow of the rhythm with no hiccups or timing errors, so I can say that it is as transparent as the midrange should be. Overall this is a deeply impressive midrange area that doesn’t require the monitors to be pumped high to deliver a consistent satisfying performance, or to fill a room with sound.

Down at the low end frequencies, they are pretty much almost as epic as those mids and follow a similar descriptive. So, just like the low mids, instead of providing an ‘in your face’ approach, it’s clear that Audiofilia have used the pneumatic ’S’ system to produce a natural come neutral bass tone with a medium response. Now that we’re discussing the transient attack and decay, something that I am left wanting a bit more is a heavier harder transience that can have the same impact and force as required for electronic genres. The AF-SM1’s can deliver a solid body response that is more than adequate for most events in the mid to high bass frequencies, but it noticeably comes from the head with a rounded, calm, and complex feeling instead of a more aggressive knife edge transparent aura. I’ve found that the bass area does manage to follow rhythms well, although it’s not what I would say is light on it’s feet or as dry as the trebles – in fact no where near so. Still, it is not muddy and is able to present great depth instead of a wall of sound and coherence is maintained. Likewise, the bass presence in general feels to be in the right measure for a reference design, although there is a small peak down in the low to mid-bass frequencies. The benefit of these qualities, to the professional user, is that you’re able to achieve an organic mix that you know you can trust, but if you do desire a super tight, critical, and highly transient bass response, ie. producers of electronic music genres, you may find that you aren’t able to attain the same brilliant hard results that you would with other monitors… and you could have trouble with your judgement and translation of compression and/or limiting here. I, personally, find the bass region to sound quite musical in a funny sort of way. They stick to the groove with a soulful approach that is so far away from being dull it will make you smile. Anyway, if we come all the way down to the sub-bass frequencies, it’s nice to hear that the AF-SM1’s don’t shy away from a bit of booty. What you won’t get from the SM1’s is a thunderous presence, but you will be able to hear sub-frequencies extending well below what is expected, a nice balance against the higher bass frequencies, and, crucially, a presence that doesn’t unduly draw the ears to them. Again, they are absolutely free of any distortion whatsoever, which is why they sound so clear, transparent, and un-bloated. Overall, I would say that the bass has great technical ability, albeit with a softer approach.

Finally, all we’re left to discuss now is the imaging. In this area the AF-SM1’s do an excellent job at naturally filling the room with sound where the monitors almost seem to melt away. They certainly don’t deliver an intimate, personal, experience and it’s clear that Audiofilia have designed the SM1’s to produce an flexible, yet expansive, stereo image that feels natural. The flexibility that the AF-SM1’s afford the engineer is massive because, when you’re trying to create the perfect atmosphere for a record in the box, you are clearly able to hear your placements accurately and as individual units – even when working with a large multitrack mix. My only area of criticism is the central reservation. The reason for this is that there is a bit of a void here where central elements can sound as if they’re occupying too much space between the two speakers – it’s almost as if they sound like two mono mixes rather than a stereo, they can sound thrown (if that makes much sense). Either way, you’re able to achieve some brilliant results, and the air around each instrument causes the sound to appear so real with no real sense of bleeding or incoherence.

Final Note:

As said previously, the AF-SM1’s are a very flexible pair of monitor speakers that take various source components well. Because of this you can reasonably customise their output to sound anywhere from extreme reference to nearer natural. The sonic descriptive above captures the general characteristics well, however I would like to highlight the flexibility of the AF-SM1’s: I noticed that my Chord Electronics ‘Hugo’ > The Chord Company ‘Signature Tuned ARAY > Chord Electronics ‘Scamp’ system yielded a very reference sound signature with an expansive stereo field. When the amplifier was swapped out with the Schiit ‘Ragnarok’ the imaging was still expansive, but became more consistent and produced greater dynamic contrast, with improved timing and accuracy. Personally I would say that this system appealed to me the most, however, if you would like a closer to natural sounding experience, which still is good for mixing although maybe not for mastering, then your best bet is to go for a Lynx ‘Hilo’ > The Chord Company ‘Cadenza Reference’ > Chord Electronics ‘Scamp’ system. This recommendation is ridiculously impressive and really brings out the bass frequencies for a smooth, more intimate, and highly musical ‘toe tapping’ experience.

Review Conclusion:

The Audiofilia AF-SM1’s are a fine example of Italian craftsmanship, and can even be customised by the user to suit their preference or application. The classic design is backed by solid cabinetry and contains high quality components throughout. Internally Audiofilia rely on their proprietary ’S’ system technology, in combination with a 6” low frequency driver, to produce a natural bass image. But, despite the complex technology contained within the AF-SM1’s, Audiofilia have maintained a compact footprint that is somewhat similar to a pair of Dynaudio BM6’s or KRK RP6’s. Following a minimum burn-in period of sixty hours, and when paired with the correct reference devices, these monitor speakers produce a brilliant smooth and natural reference signature with an expansive image. Sure the AF-SM1’s are an excellent idea for most genres, but they just don’t have the grunt needed for electronic genres. Like their nickname suggests, they’re little hand grenades, and The Pro Audio Web Blog awards the Audiofilia AF-SM1 monitor speakers with a five star rating and our ‘Editor’s Choice’ award.

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