Unlocking the Mystery of the Greatest Loudspeaker in History: the Yamaha NS10

Ever wonder why the small Yamaha NS10 monitor is poised so confidently behind the mixing consoles of every major recording studio around the world? I have. When you explore this little loudspeaker’s list of credits, you’ll discover that no other single loudspeaker has played a greater role in your musical library than the Yamaha NS10—period!

But the equation is more complex than you might think. We’ve got the most famous loudspeaker in history—a Grammy Awarded loudspeaker. And we have the world’s best sound engineers using them. But we have other engineers openly cursing these speakers: so, what gives??

Every major recording studio in the world uses these speakers and yet, if you asked someone to explain why the speakers are so valuable, no one would be able to tell you the real answer. Sound experts grapple with a real explanation of what these speakers actually do on a technological level that makes them so needed. It’s an industry mystery, and it is one that has intrigued me for years.

The NS10 was originally released simply as a domestic hi-fi loudspeaker in 1978; but it did not sound good, and it was poorly received. Then, somehow, by fluke or by miracle, recording engineers began implementing them as a reference benchmark for a bad sounding speaker. Imagine: what is now the world’s most influential loudspeaker was once regarded as the worst sounding equipment on the market. However, professionals soon began to realize the NS10 had the uncanny ability to reveal shortcomings in recordings, and the rest is history.

A short list of Grammy Awarded engineers known for using the Yamaha NS10 is Andy Wallace, Brendan O’Brien, Tom & Chris Lord-Alge, Charles Dye, and Dave Pensado. With these big names on board, it makes sense to say that the Yamaha NS10 is invaluable to the recording industry. Literally thousands of albums have been produced using the Yamaha NS10 or one of its production variants. We’re talking many Gold and Platinum production numbers here. Pick your top ten all-time favorite songs and albums from the last thirty years and you’ll discover the NS10 was likely used at some point in their production process. And, if you expand that top ten list of yours to movie and television recordings, you’ll soon realize that the NS10’s influence upon how and what we hear is near endless.

With a pedigree like this you’d think that every engineer worth his salt would have a pair of these black and white boxes and be using them every day—but they don’t. The ultimate irony here is Yamaha literally walked away from NS10 production in 2001. They completely abandoned all production! Yamaha soon moved into the realm of wider bandwidth, more linear, and larger-sized models; a mistake in my professional opinion.

In my career in the music industry, I have designed over fifty-five commercially available loudspeaker designs, but I had never been able to crack the secret of what makes the NS10 so valuable. Over the years I’ve been asked to build near-field monitors, or speakers that are used in recording studios, for audio engineers. To date, we’ve built them for some of the biggest names and artists in the industry. Intuitively, when I was first asked to produce a near-field monitor, I figured I needed to start with some homework, and the first thing I did was research the Yamaha NS10. When it came time to evaluate the NS10 frequency response, I saw something very intriguing. This loudspeaker, so highly revered by everyone, had the strangest frequency response I had ever seen. Then it hit me . . . the frequency response looked strangely familiar . . . but where . . . ? Then, the correlation was almost instant. I went straight to the ISO 226 equal-loudness contours curves and the Fletcher Munson curves—research that shows how the human ear hears sound at different frequencies. I copied a page from one of the tables, flipped it over upside down, and held the page up to my window. Through the light, I saw what looked to be the Yamaha NS10 frequency response now for the second time and located in a place where no one expected to find it. It now made perfect sense – mystery solved! My respect for Bob Clearmountain, the first sound engineer to regularly use the NS10 in a recording studio, now goes through the stratosphere! His intuitiveness, creativity, and most importantly, his ability to discern how music should sound in recordings places him in the realm of Picasso and Michelangelo.

The Yamaha NS10 was an accidental inverse of the ISO 226 equal-loudness contours curves and the Fletcher Munson curves. The Yamaha NS10 becomes a successful near-field ‘mixing monitor’ when it is placed sideways with the tweeters opposed and on the outside; and placed in the near-field referenced to a level between 80-100dB. Mixing with a loudspeaker like this causes revealing midrange (harmonics and subtle details) and invites the engineer to emphasize the lower frequencies proportionally; reduce the midrange dominance, and emphasize and adjust high frequencies accordingly. Proper editing and playback on reference grade loudspeakers at levels between 80-100dB will reveal a quality end result. I’m oversimplifying all of this a bit here because this is not only pure science… it’s also art.

Based on the unraveling of this mystery, I have filed for patent protection for what I term a new type of ‘conversion monitor’ for ‘mixing sound’. I am pleased to announce new loudspeakers for near-field mixing and monitoring. These will be high quality scientific electro-acoustical instruments and powerful tools in a sound engineer’s toolbox. Pre-orders are now being accepted – please email me directly. I will also make licensing available to individuals, companies, and manufacturers. I also plan to offer a Yamaha NS10 crossover modification that will hug the equal-loudness contour inversion even closer. We are excited to add to the legacy that the NS10 has already brought to the recording industry, and are proud to offer you a new industry-changing product.

Eric Jay Alexander

President

Tekton Design LLC

Yamaha NS10 Frequency Response:

NS10M Frequency Respons

Further enforcing the theory: Bob Clearmountain placed tissue paper over the tweeter to further attenuate it. This too, was no accident and it takes the NS10 much closer to the 80-100dB ISO equal-loudness contour.

The Fletcher Munson and Equal-Loudness Contours inverted:

Equal-Loudness Contour Curves Reversed

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22 Responses to “Unlocking the Mystery of the Greatest Loudspeaker in History: the Yamaha NS10”

  1. I desired a loudspeaker that gave the astonishing sound quality that my laptop provides. Simply put, I was missing hearing everything the recording was trying to tell me. I had read about the Yamaha NS-1000M a few years ago, found a perfect pair on Ebay. They are incredibly satisfying to me. We audiophiles certainly do have very different ‘ears’.

  2. It is an interesting idea, which, based on the Fletcher Munson curves and the FR of the Yamaha loudspeaker, appears that it can be improved upon. I am curious, though, if the net result moves us further away from recordings that sound real. If the human ear has natural sensitivity differences at different frequencies, and you essentially flatten those out by compensating for those sensitivities in your loudspeaker design, aren’t you creating a recording that, while technically more accurate, will also sound different than if you were listening directly to the real thing?

    • Steve,

      Thanks for your thoughts. I don’t believe this moves us farther from “real”. I see these new monitors as a tool in an engineers toolbox.

      Try to visualize a microphone stuffed into a bass drum and recorded as a single bass drum track or a microphone placed 1/2 from the face of a Fender Twin Reverb capturing sounds coming from a Telecaster guitar. If we stuck our head in the same microphone locations we would describe the sound as overwhelming and raw. The art and the science is in the ‘conversion’ that transforms the raw into “real”. A tool that aids in this ‘conversion’ firmly grounded in science that shortens and improves the process is what I’m after.

      If we spent the day shopping for mixing monitors we’ll discover they come in every imaginable flavor; we’ve got big ones, small ones, fat ones, skinny ones, vented models with 24dB per octave slopes, sealed versions with 12dB per octave slopes, 2-way, 3 way, etc… I’ve been told engineers are advised to learn how to use one model they personally like and stick with it. In my opinion, that’s very intuitive and very wrong.

      I believe a scientific approach firmly grounded in acoustical physics is the correct path to be going down.

      Eric

      • I am very intrigued by this concept of a new, dare I say “improved” NS10 (making bad, better, or more correctly bad, haha not sure how to describe that). How can I stay in the know for when you’re ready to demo or make the new monitors?

      • Thank you! Please stay tuned or feel free to call us directly. We’re working with a number of great leading engineers on this now and hope to have new products available within 90 days.

  3. You’ve left me speechless. It all makes perfect sense.
    I studied sound recording and I had to analyse different near field monitors to try to understand the perks of each one and I remember my professor used the NS10 as an example of success but mystery nontheless.

    Thank you for sharing this.

  4. Johnny Rock Says:

    The model 4.5v2 is the one you mention in this blog as the new conversion monitor or that one is pre order only?

  5. How does the room these speakers live in play a part in what you hear. The measurements of the NS-10 were likely done in a anechoic chamber?

    • NS-10’s were designed as “Bookshelf Speakers”, so they depended on a quasi-soffit application, using the wall behind them and the “enclosure” of objects on the shelf to reinforce the bass response. Surprisingly, they were most successfully employed in a free-standing mounting atop the meter bridge of most consoles, which denied them any bass buildup. That’s why people were constantly replacing the woofer cones.

  6. David Chapman Says:

    Very interesting and therefore would be very interested to try a pair here. I’ve been trying to emulate the NS10 concept–that is, mixing with a really sh*tty set of speakers–with good but not quite NS10 results. Please let me know how and when. Thanks, Eric.

  7. Rumors abound but I once heard that Yamaha gave a ton of these away to A&R Guys back in the day, so save producers and engineers put them in the studio to mix to what the shot callers were listening to. As for ceasing reduction, it’s been my understanding that Yamaha could no longer get either the paper for the cones, or the wood for the boxes for them. Either way , great sounding, no. Very useful, yes.

  8. Great article, and observation. I also have a hunch that the paper woofers are contributors to the NS-10’s tight sound.

  9. The small hole in the top end at ~3k, where our hearing is most sensitive, probably does help the NS-10 unveil more upper mids, sort of like how a small cut ~300Hz on a track can often make lows/low mids sound more detailed. But my guess is that the benefit of the substantial and unusual low end roll off of the NS-10 has less to do with Equal-Loudness Contours and everything to do with how little its bottom end interacts with the room it’s in (compared to most nearfields). If I were designing a nearfield with the goal of having it work like an NS-10, I’d shoot for the NS-10 response, not ISO 226.

  10. In other words…
    Use your high end speakers with a preset mixing-eq that is equivalent to the NS-10 curves.
    I’d say there’s also different amount of compression and distortion that also might be simulated.

    Maybe a plug-in would do it.

  11. Rafael Carmany Says:

    I love these speakers for both recording and mixing. I’ve been told that unless they are sitting on a console bridge or another heavy surface for resonance that they are horrible sounding. I’ve also heard that it was primarily Bob Clearmountain’s use of them which helped propel their popularity in Control Rooms. I don’t know if any of this is true.

  12. Bob Clearmountain recorded several projects in my former studio (Boogie Hotel, Port Jefferson, NY) and I was always amazed at how he could make the NS-10’s sound. I never was able to successfully make the constant aural calculations (if I can hear the bass, there’s too much of it, and if the top end is not ripping my head off, there’s not enough…) to be happy mixing on them. One solution was to power them with massive amounts of power-I remember mixing in Unique Studios in NYC and thinking, “with 1200 watts pushing these things, they almost sound good”. I found that KRK’s original 6.5’s worked well for me-they translated to every other speaker system without having to compensate for the speaker’s deficiencies. “What you heard was what you got”-made mixing much easier.

    BTW, it wasn’t “tissue paper” that fixed the tweeter response. The “official” BC mod was “2 layers of Kim Wipes”.

    Best regards,
    Jeffrey Kawalek
    Kawalabear Productions, Inc.

  13. Very interesting, I believe besides that it is all about transient response (sealed design and the cardboard snappiness of the paper cone).
    I thought it was all hype until I finally bought mine, highly recommended as a second pair at least.
    Very easy to work on very low volume levels as described in the article but bass is lacking. Upper-lows and low-mids greatly detailed though because of no deep bass masking frequencies.

  14. Enjoyed reading this site and all of your posts. Jeffrey Kawalek: I remember the Kim Wipes from Powerstation.

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