Field Test

How do you like those speaker stands?

I spent most of the week-end testing two pairs of nearfields: the Barefoot MM35 Gen 2 and the Focal SM9 professional reference monitors. The Barefoots are on the meter bridge of my console closest to the small Avantone mix cubes. And the Focals are balanced on two sets of night tables acting as loudspeaker stands. Although the Barefoots are not exactly lightweight speakers — they weigh in at around 43 pounds each — the Focals are so much heavier at 77 pounds each that I thought it best to keep them off the console.

It took three people to bring the Focals down into the studio.

Both pairs are outstanding monitors. And, not surprisingly, they both sound quite different.

The Focals presented a very wide sound stage probably because I had them positioned quite wide relative to the sweet spot. Very addictive. I felt like I was inside the music. Tight low end, great highs, impressive separation. So what’s not to like about these monitors?

I switched to the Barefoots. Good golly, the midrange was right there. Like really right there. I had to switch back to the Focals to confirm that I was missing so much midrange detail. And I was. My wife, who by her own admission would not purport to hold golden ears, also heard the difference. It was not a nuanced difference. It was significant to my ears.

I also preferred the minimalism of the Barefoots. The Focals had extensive EQ settings on the box. If I have to have that many options to tailor a pair of speakers then I probably need to find a better acoustic space to mix. The Barefoots come with a remote control that allows you to dial in four different classes of speaker emulation: flat, hi fi, old school and cube. The latter two settings emulate the Yamaha NS10 and Auratone Cubes. Very handy when referencing mixes.

I will spend more time over the week to give both pairs of monitors a fair shake but right now I think I have the winner.



  1. Flecko says


    I am myself interested in both of the monitors but I don’t have the possibility to test both speakers at home. So I am very interested in what you will find. I like to comment that the wider sound stage of the Focal is for sure because of the wider distance of the speakers. They should be placed as identetical to the mm35 as possible. Also make sure that you listen at the same distance to the speakers. Very important is that the sound pressure level of the mm35 and SM9 are matched EXACTLY. Otherwise you will be fooled by that difference.

    Greetings Flecko

    • says

      Hi Flecko,

      Thank you for dropping by the blog! Hopefully you can find a way to audition speakers in your listening environment. Studio Economik in Montreal, Canada is very good with customer service and support and I highly recommend them if you are in Canada. The dealers in Canada and the US do offer an audition protocol for this class of monitor. You might have to pay for the shipping back and forth but it is well worth the small cost to ensure that the monitors will perform as expected and as required.

      The acoustic space will certainly influence the presentation of sound and I would not purchase this class of monitoring system without an extensive audition in my own listening space. I have been working with both pairs for eight days now. And that is just enough time for me to evaluate their capabilities.

      The Focals are designed for use between one and four metres to the listening position. That allows quite a bit of flexibility in regards to positioning the monitors. With their weight and size, I would not deploy them on my meter bridge so I will not be positioning them as identical to the Barefoots as possible.

      Although I am very interested in how they both perform, I am more interested in which speaker will work best for my ears, my room and my work.

      By way of process, the monitors were positioned within manufacturer recommendations — I have traded a number of emails with each company to clarify how to best prepare for critical listening including burning in protocols, speaker positioning, etc. The monitors were calibrated for the sweet spot. I auditioned a wide variety of material from prior projects as well as reference tracks that I use when mixing in other studios. I measured the performance of the speakers in the acoustic space to optimize the presentation of sound (each speaker has a certain level of tuning capabilities although equalization is far more extensive on the Focals). And, finally, I just listened to determine which speakers really inspired my mix work. In other words, I wasn’t so much doing a shoot-out between two monitors as much as I was looking to find a monitor that would work well for my ears.

      I spent considerable listening time with both pairs in isolation and very little time on comparing them with each other. Obviously they are very different speakers and they sound different. So for me, it was all about which pair I preferred.

      I really like the Barefoots. Very tight, focused, revealing, accurate. No listening fatigue. The Focals are also a wonderful pair of speakers. For me, not as revealing in the midrange as the Barefoots, a bit warmer than I expected although a very nice soundstage. Both offer alternate monitoring modes — the Focals basically take the subs out, the Barefoots offer 4 distinct speaker emulation modes — which might come in handy for testing the portability of a mix. I will likely still use my existing alternate monitors as I like to test for portability outside a studio environment (e.g., in a car, off an ipod, off a computer, on a home stereo).

      So, net for me: two world-class choices and it comes down to listening preferences. I prefer the Barefoots. Your listening preferences and your listening space will obviously influence your choice. I don’t think there is a right or wrong choice nor a better or worse choice. I do hope that you can find a way to audition prior to purchase. Best of luck :-)


      • Flecko says

        Hi Richard,

        I have had the opportuinity to make a comparison at a big music store but they only had the gen1 version of the mm35. I adjusted the volume of the SM 9 and MM 35 to be equal, with the help of a dB meter and fine tuning by ear. I listened to some well known test tracks. For me the SM9 sunded just awesome. MM35 was also nice but not in the same league (for me). The gen2 is for sure a better speaker than the gen1, according to what you wrote they seem to be equally good, which I would beleave without doubts because of the new amplification, the new tweeter and midrange driver used. But I know what I liked about the SM9 and do not think that the general sound charakter will change in a way that i will like the mm35 gen2 better than the SM9. So I ordered a pair to test them at my home. There I will compare them to my old speakers. If they sound as good in my home as at the shop, I will be very happy.

        Greetings Flecko

        • says

          Hi Flecko,

          Well… whatever works for you of course :-)

          I would be very cautious with terms like “not in the same league” and “better”. You are quite right to assert your preference as ultimately any choice in a high-end monitoring system will be a preference. Both companies compete in the same space and both offer an exceptional product. They are both top tier and world class products.

          It seems as though you had already decided on the SM9s as a preference and you are not really testing them objectively against the Barefoots especially if you are only bringing the SM9s into your home and only comparing the SM9s to your current speakers. Not sure what you have at home, but if this is your first experience with a high-end monitoring system I am sure that you will really enjoy the SM9s. Make sure you have some help lifting those speakers though — they are really, really heavy :-)

          Good luck!

  2. Flecko says

    Thanks Richard!

    I stumbled over the expresseion “not in the same leage” myself and decided to add the (for me). I am aware of the subjective and emotional influences an enthusiast can be exposed to. This kind of expressions are always to be taken with the right amount of salt and so I take the freedom to use them to make my point clear.

    About objectivity (and a lot of salt please):
    I heared the Focal SM9 a couple of times in different locations. I liked them always, so this was not the first impression and I of course expected to like them again. I think only a few can help them self beeing not biased at all from such experiences. Once I heard the SM9 side by side with a Barefoot MM27 and at that time I would have gone with the MM27. But this test was not at the same volume, with a “simple” studio cd player as source and just a very short listening time, so it was not objective.
    The latest listening test should be as objective as possible and was based on a certain idea. I have read some reviews of the MM35 gen2 and SM9, where reviewers prefered the MM35 gen2, mostly because of the midrange qualities. Then I red about the Barefoot beeing fully digital, including switching amplifiers and already knew the Focal SM9 where fully analog. I thought it would be realy interesting to put this monitors to the test to find out which concept works “better”. The key idea, beside the thoughts about “what is important for a comparison” I mentioned in my first post, was to use a high quality DAC as a source. The assumption: Only with an optimal source one could decide which of the monitors will be “better”. Why is this so important?: Beeing fully digital the barefoots reprocess all audio they receive. This could be no problem, if the audio quality of the source is equal or worse the capabilites of the intrinsic ADC / DSP / DAC chain but could be a disadvantage if the source (DAC) is better. In this case a fully analoge system could have an advantage. To test this I showed up in the store, with a dB meter, a notebook with my music and my DAC (which I found after many years of looking for DAC which is free from digital sounding artifacts).
    I tried to be as not biased as possible. That I only could hear the gen1 was of course not the comparison I hoped for but it was good enough for me to lern. My impressions where shared with a companion I had with me. He was informed about my plan but was not biased in the way I was (He did’t even knew the brands). To make it short: We were very much one opinion about what we heard. I realy do not know how the gen2 version will be in comparison to the SM9 but “objectively” the MM35 gen1 are “not as good” as the Focal SM9. If they were close I would say so but they are not. This is just my point of view. Considering the price difference which is a 1000€ advantage for the SM9 I stoped considering about hearing the gen2. I know they are not for me.

    PS.: My speakers are the “Hobby Hifi” original prototypes of the “Bookshelf BS1″ [3-way (drivers are arranged like SM9), Seas Excel speakers, closed stone enclosure]. It is a passive “monitor” speaker. The pictures you will find in the net are from “my” speakers :)

    • says

      Okay Flecko. We’ll end it here. The Barefoots are not fully digital — such an odd statement — and the Focals have a certain voicing which is different from the Barefoots and you clearly prefer the Focal voicing. There is no science here and where you might think the Barefoots are “not as good” as the Focals, others would have a different perspective.

      If you’ve been using “Hobby Hifi” speakers for critical monitoring then I’m sure you will find the Focals a better transition as they tend to be a bit warmer in voicing. The Barefoots are not aimed at the “Hobby Hifi” market ;-)

  3. Rasi says

    Insightful review. I always appreciate when I can read differing takes on a pairing that I had also considered. However, I’m also fully aware that a purchase this large is almost always defended as being just…And I encourage readers to keep that in mind here too! xD

    I’ll agree that the Barefoots certainly have more mid-range detail to them, but to my 20yr old and relatively unharmed ears, I found this voicing to be a bit much when working for 8+ hours on a mix. In this sense, the SM9 monitors were better suited to my ceaseless listening periods (with a few breaks, of course.) I also greatly appreciate the potential to have some “hype factor” during playback for clients considering how bass-heavy and loud the Focals can get!

    The difference between the Focal’s fully analog signal path and the Barefoot’s various voicing options wasn’t of much importance to me. Mostly because I count on those same speakers the mm35s seek to imitate in the latter two voicings while testing for playback compatibility. I do mix through a squeaky clean SSL console though, so it is sometimes reassuring to know that from input to hearing those sweet vibrations that there’s a fully analog signal path in between. Also, I must comment here on the remarkably silent (yes) nature of the SM9s when everything is powered on with nothing but my monitoring chain’s noise to listen to. Apparently this is a result of their four balanced differential pre-amp stages being paralleled to have a noise reduction of 12db.

    Reading this, I’m sure it’s obvious that I went with the SM9s. Although I must add, the Barefoot mm27s would have been my monitors of choice assuming I had wanted to put the extra $3000 into my mains (incl. those stands.) Probably because of the higher amperage on everything to be honest! Unfortunately, I felt I was in dire need of some truly world class converters, so you can guess where that money will go. I encourage anyone considering these options to also check out the ATC monitors in this range, especially if you’re doing acoustic music more often than not.

    • says

      Hi Rasi,

      We all hear differently and my ears at my age have certainly changed since I was 20 years old :-)

      Glad you found a pair of monitors that you like!

      I will point out that loudspeaker designers have a choice to make in their approach to crossovers (active/passive). Like you, I really do not care about the underlying technology that is being used to filter the incoming analog signal. It is the sound that gets produced on the listening side of things! For me, it is about a monitoring chain that I can trust, one that inspires me to mix and one that allows me to produce an excellent result.

      The Barefoots are a great candidate for consideration along with the Focals (and ATCs and PMCs and Geithains and PSIs and K&Hs etc).

  4. Tim Aylesworth says

    Hi Richard

    I agree with your point about having a monitoring chain you can trust – I have been using the pretty inexpensive Yamaha MSP5s for a few years. I know how they sound and I never worry that my good-sounding mix on these speakers might not sound so good on something else. Just need to fire up the sub for those heavy metal projects!

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