Gigging keyboardists have been a huge reason for the success of a product that, with a few exceptions, hasn’t been marketed as a “keyboard thing.” That, of course, is the portable powered stage monitor. They tend to have much more power than keyboard combo amps, reproducing the full frequency range with no coloration and more than enough volume to stand between the drummer and guitar player. Unlike combo amps, they have minimal built-in mixing, but if you have a multi-keyboard rig, you probably own a small mixer, and you probably use it to send a stereo keyboard mix to the house P.A. and a pre-fader aux to your powered monitor. If you play just one keyboard and maybe sing, the monitor itself may have all the inputs you need. Thanks to advances such as Class-D power amp design, the latest stage speakers are dramatically lighter—woofer for woofer and watt for watt—than previous models of just a few years ago.
ALTO PROFESSIONAL TS115A
Though Alto’s TS115A looks and feels subjectively bulkier than the JBL Eon 515XT (the other speaker in this roundup with a 15" woofer), it’s manageable at 39 pounds, its three handles (on top and each side) make it easy to maneuver, and the corner nubs facilitate easy, stable stacking. It’s can work upright or as a floor monitor.
The 15" woofer made some of my synth sounds a bit tubby, but as you might expect, pads, synth bass, and sampled acoustic bass had a really nice depth. Acoustic pianos are the most demanding sounds to reproduce naturally, and the TS115A wasn’t overly kind to those in my Nord Stage 2—I couldn’t find a happy compromise between girth and punch. Electric pianos and organs fared much better. Obviously, players kicking left-hand bass will benefit from the larger speaker, and in general, I hear more of a difference going from a 12" to a 15" woofer than I from 10" to 12".
Remembering the rock bottom street price puts such criticisms in perspective. A pair of TS115As runs less than $700, and is more than enough to serve as the main P.A. and sole keyboard amp for, say, a trio or quartet in an intimate setting. A single unit works well as a monitor, and can fill the room with your keyboards in small bars, taking demand off the underpowered P.A. often found in those kinds of venues. Keeping in mind that the next price level upmarket is $600 to $700 per speaker, and the next is four figures, the Altos offer plenty to feel good about. --Tony Orant
The Alto TS115A has two combo ins, each with enough gain for a mic, but no hi-z guitar input. The XLR out sends a mono mix to the house P.A. or other powered speaker. The contour switch boosts highs and lows. Big props to Alto for understanding that anything that has an XLR output should have a ground lift!
You won’t find the YesMon CCM112among the usual powered speaker suspects at garden variety retailers, and the company’s website is replete with pictures of touring systems for DJs and installs in nightclubs. Keyboardists are known for looking outside the box, though, and that certainly describes the CCM112. This little wedge (it’s also pole-mountable) drives 1,500 watts of Class-D power into a 12" woofer with a coaxially mounted tweeter. The picture doesn’t do justice to how tiny it is—just 14" x 15" x 12".
Unlike most “music store” powered speakers, there’s no onboard mixing, mic input, or even any knobs. The single XLR input is line-level, so you’ll need a compact mixer for routing and gain control. A Neutrik PowerCon connector (with the cord included) is used for connecting to AC power. This is much more secure than the usual IEC type cord—and though it looks a lot like the Speakon speaker connector, the two aren't compatible, so there is no danger of plugging the AC line into some other speaker's audio input by accident.
Here’s the big deal. This thing is loud—for its size, the loudest speaker I think I’ve ever heard. You could be in a 2,000-seat theater with everything except your keyboards going through the house line array, and the back row of the balcony would be able to hear them just fine. Running a Korg Krome and then a Yamaha Motif ES straight into the CCM112 (to keep the gain chain simple), I couldn’t turn either keyboard’s volume up past a third without literally becoming frightened of how loud it got. Not that the speaker itself showed any hint of getting crispy—it remained clear as a bell.
The YesMon CCM112 puts its connectors on the side, letting you make any other surface the bottom when placing it as a floor wedge. Pole-mount it atop the SSP115 subwoofer, and the side becomes the bottom with the connections logically facing downward. Connections themselves are simply XLR line in and thru, and that blue jack is actually for AC power.
The CCM112 does seem intended for use with a subwoofer. The enclosure is sealed, not ported, and for that reason the bottom two octaves of piano sounds—while still plenty loud—sounded a bit metallic and boxy compared to the Line 6 speakers I also tested for this roundup. Bassmaxx also sent us their SSP115 sub, which adds a number of DSP-based crossover/EQ presets and turned my rig into something approaching a one-keyboardist Ultra Music Festival. The sub is compact (about 22" on a side) but a non-trivial carrying commitment at 89 pounds.
By weekend warrior standards, Bassmaxx gear is expensive, though lower-powered versions of both the monitor and sub are somewhat more affordable ($1,650 and $1,999, respectively), and honestly, more than loud enough for any monitoring or filling-the-house keyboard application. If having the most swagger of any keyboard player you know is worth the price, Bassmaxx would be how you get it. --Stephen Fortner
I have been using a stereo pair of Electro-Voice ZXA1 speakers as keyboard monitors for over a month. Each weights in at just 19 pounds, and with a footprint of about 18" x 11" x 10", they fit nicely on the floor beneath my Yamaha S90XS performance synthesizer.
I’m a freelance keyboardist who does around 100 gigs a year, primarily in a five-piece, high-energy cover band. We perform lots of country hits, dancey stuff from Lady Gaga and Pink, some ’80s hair band music, and classic rock. Venues range from smaller corporate parties, to medium to large clubs, to outdoor summer festivals, to the occasional concert hall. The EVs are easily heard and I have lots of headroom—I could run the ZXA1s much louder than I currently do.
I’m very impressed with clarity and smoothness with which they reproduce piano patches. On complex multitimbral setups, the speakers are very articulate and I can easily hear the various individual sounds being used. The speaker also does a good job reproducing my clonewheel organ when it’s impractical to bring a Leslie.
The eight-inch woofer might seem small, but the bass response in the ZxA1 is optimal for my needs—keep in mind that a stereo pair moves twice the air. A big reason I prefer the EVs over most other powered speakers I’ve tried is that the pianos sound more natural in the bass register in particular.In fact, since switching to the ZXA1s, I now run all my mixer EQ settings flat.
The ZXA1’s rear panel has two inputs: an XLR mic in with independent gain control, and a XLR/TRS combo jack that’s line-level only. The XLR master out sums the mic and line inputs. Toggling the 100Hz low cut (for use with a subwoofer) requires a stylus such as a paper clip, preventing accidental changing at the gig. There’s built-in overload protection, but no EQ.
I almost always have the benefit of a good front-of-house P.A. and so have used the ZXA1s mainly for monitoring. Judging them based on current performances, though, I think you could easily fill medium-sized clubs with a pair of these and no subwoofer. It would certainly work well for jazz, blues, or any sort of piano-based gigs.I currently perform pieces where the band’s bassist plays acoustic guitar and I play the bass guitar parts on the S90XS. The sound coming out of the ZXA1 pair thumps onstage.Genres utilizing heavy synth bass or, say, sequenced kick drum parts, would call for adding a single ZXA1 Sub (the subwoofer that’s marketed in conjunction with the ZXA1 tops).
Though the lightweight ABS cabinet makes me wonder how this speaker will hold up to prolonged road abuse, so far I’ve had no problems. A slot on the top rear of the cabinet where you insert your fingers serves as the only handle, but the light physical weight makes this almost a non-issue.
All in all, I’m extremely pleased with ZXA1 speakers, and they’re very well priced—and by that I mean low—for the audio quality they provide.--Clarence Boyd
In 1995, JBL’s Eon series ushered in the idea of the powered stage speaker as personal gear—as opposed to something clubs and sound contractors own. Since then, we’ve them as standalone P.A. systems for trios and coffee houses. We’ve known many a singer and horn player to keep one in the trunk so they’ll never be without a monitor. Of course, keyboard players like their full-range sound. When we tested the then-new Eon 515 in February 2011, one reviewer thought it didn’t get quite loud enough. Improvements in today’s 515XT model include higher input sensitivity and a lower noise floor, and we’re happy to report that when it comes to filling the room, these pay off.
The Eon 515XTs are light and well balanced to carry from any of the three handles. I first used a pair as my keyboard monitors in a loud jam band playing in a biker roadhouse, alongside two guitars, bass, and a terrific but hard-hitting drummer. My rig consists of a Kurzweil PC3K and Hammond XK-3, the latter running running through a Neo Instruments Ventilator rotary pedal. I ran the left outs of the Kurzweil and Ventilator and into channels 1 and 2 of one Eon and their right outs into the other. The line-level XLR out of the Eons fed the house P.A., although most of the energy for my sound came from the Eons themselves.
The first thing I noticed was how open the piano sounded. During sound check, I always run the “piano test” and over-exaggerate the frequency range and dynamics via my playing. Since piano is such a full-range instrument, this almost always reveals any issues with frequency spikes or dips, and the Eons passed with flying colors. I was pleasantly surprised by their flat voicing.
One thing I enjoy with my big-rig setup (Mackie 802VLZ3 mixer, QSC PLX-1804 power amp, and two JBL MRX512M passive speakers) is control over input and output levels throughout the signal chain. By design, powered speakers with integrated mixing are a closed system, but with the Eons, I had no input sensitivity or gain staging issues.
On this gig, I needed clean loudness, and the 515XTs performed quite well. They can’t get as loud as my separate components, but the Eons had better fidelity and are certainly loud enough. In fact, not only did my PC3K piano sound more pleasing, open, and realistic, but the organ sounded killer. The extended low end gave it additional balls, while the smooth highs gave the Leslie grind some welcome “teeth.” With the 15" woofer and plenty of power, there’s enough low end for left-hand bass gigs.
A few nights later I played at a jam at a small club. They had a Nord Electro, and I decided to try a single 515XT as its stage amp. Even the single speaker had plenty of punch to throw my solos to the back wall. The Clav patches cut right through and the Rhodes and Wurly were warm, punchy, and above all, very natural sounding at all volume levels. Even when I cranked it up, there was no discernible change in timbre. As with most powered speakers, JBL employs limiting to protect the speakers from amp clipping, but even at high volumes, I noticed none of the artifacts you might expect.
Lastly, I played a high-end corporate gig for 350 people in a ballroom where a line array was the main P.A. I used a stereo pair to fill our 20 by 30-foot stage. Again, they were plenty loud and exhibited great fidelity. The guitarist on the opposite side of the stage heard my keys just fine and even commented on how natural sounding my rig was.
On the rear panel, the Eon 515XT includes two 1/4" inputs and an XLR combo jack that can take mics or line, though there’s no hi-z input for guitar. Each 1/4" input is TRS, so by using “Y” cables, you can run both sides of a stereo keyboard into each input, though you’d be getting a mono sum. The XLR output can pass just what’s in channel 3 (loop mode) or everything (mix mode).
I must admit to expecting less than this level of performance out of the Eon 515XTs. I expected them to be underpowered and a little harsh. They were neither, and proved to be amazing keyboard monitors. --Avi Hersh
LINE 6STAGESOURCE L3tandL3m
At NAMM 2012, Line 6 unveiled a scalable “smart” P.A. comprising the StageScape M20d—a digital mixer whose icon-based touchscreen is a radical departure from the usual slab o’ faders—and StageSource powered speakers. We’ve been testing a full system and will report on it in a future issue (it’s blowing our minds), but the StageSource speakers can also stand alone. What’s it like to use one of these, or a stereo pair, as your keyboard amp onstage? Like bringing a nuclear submarine to a fistfight.
You may have heard powered stage speakers praised for “sounding like studio monitors” before, but the StageSources sound like really high-end studio monitors. That’s partly because they’re tri-amplified. There are two 10" woofers; one picks up where the tweeter leaves off but the other is strictly for lows from 250Hz on down, and both woofers go “all the way down.” I first encountered this approach in a studio monitor, in fact: the vaunted Adam S3A. Here, the results are comparably accurate and detailed . . . only louder.
In use, I got all the bass I’d expect from an amply powered 15" woofer, only with none of the flabby character that’s so unflattering to keyboards. Pianos from Ivory sounded more natural than I can remember hearing in a live situation. A Minimoog’s famously snappy envelopes were snappier. Sparkly noodly bits popped out from “motion synth” patches on a Korg Krome I’m trying. Even at loud gigs, my ears could register moving one drawbar one notch on a clonewheel organ. I could go on.
Did they get loud enough? On larger stages (e.g., wedding gigs in hotel ballrooms), I’d stand an L3t at either rear corner of the stage, angled about 40 degrees inward. In small clubs, I’d deploy the built-in kickstands to lay a single L3t behind my rig at an inward-firing angle. In all cases, listeners verified they could hear my keyboards clearly, and in all but two of these, the sound engineer copped to not needing me in the mains. I could hear myself loud and clear, and bandmates tended not to need me in their monitors but seldom complained I was too loud. In other words, the StageSource throws without pummeling whoever’s standing next to it, and that’s no mean feat.
Both the L3m and L3t have an XLR combo input that wants a line-level signal, as from a monitor send on your keyboard mixer. RCA jacks are for whatever plays your break music (or maybe a Korg Kaossilator). L6 Link is a proprietary digital connection that goes well beyond simple audio transmission.
Then there’s all the DSP mojo. The L3t and L3m have six modes that tweak the crossover and EQ for different sources. I preferred the “Reference/P.A.” mode to “Keyboards”—your taste may vary. Placed on its side, the speaker goes into “Floor Monitor” mode, which sums stereo signals to mono and rolls off the lows a bit; you can override this. Upright, it knows if it’s on a pole and if not, adjusts its response to create a better illusion of projecting sound upward. I also tested the feedback suppression by approaching my L3t pair with a live mic in hand, and it’s quick and effective.
When we review the StageScape M20d mixer, we’ll see just how powerful Line 6’s digital audio networking, called L6 Link, can get. It can do a few tricks without an M20d present, though. With two StageSource speakers, anything plugged into the first is routed to the second. Stereo signals (the RCA jacks on an L3m, and/or both channels of an L3t’s built-in mixer when in stereo mode) will be split properly. You can daisy chain up to nine speakers; even numbers of speakers divide left and right channels equally and odd numbers add a mono sum to the middle speaker in the chain.
Normally, you’d run L6 link in one direction, using a single digital-grade XLR cable. Connecting my L3t pair bi-directionally, though, didn’t confuse them: The L3t that had started out first in the chain still knew it was the left side, and stereo splitting worked flawlessly even when I filled every 1/4" and RCA input on both units. Since I only had two speakers, I didn’t test whether this behavior scaled up to larger chains.
At about 57 pounds each, the StageSources are the heaviest in this roundup. That said, the tall-but-skinny form factor is surprisingly manageable, and there’s a certain “monolith from 2001” presence onstage.
The L3t adds this “coffee house gig” mixer on the side. It takes mics or guitars, and includes modeling to enhance acoustic guitars, as well as reverb. Keyboardists will like stereo link mode, which can split a stereo signal with a second L3t (or L3m) connected via L6 Link. You can use all rear-panel inputs at the same time, with the RCA ins stereo split in the same way.
Since the L3m is identical to the L3t except for having no built-in mixer, it’s the better choice if you already have a keyboard mixer and/or don’t need mic and guitar ins—and saves you about $200 out the door. Likewise, the L2t and L2m offer mixer-equipped and mixerless options in an even more compact and affordable single-woofer format. Even if you just need a single speaker and will never use the L6 Link or DSP features, the combination of pristine audio quality and seemingly roofless headroom justifies every penny of the price of any of these models, at least to my ears. If the StageSource seems like overkill as a keyboard monitor, that’s only until you get used to playing through one. --Stephen Fortner
Mackie’s DLM series looks like a conventional “box” P.A. but offers several interesting twists. The DLM8 and DLM12 have 8" and 12" woofers, respectively, and each uses a Class-D amp that pushes 2,000 watts of peak power. The drivers are mounted coaxially (a design originally made popular by Tannoy studio monitors) and vertically aligned so that the sound from the tweeter and woofer come at you from the same point—what Mackie calls “TruSource.”
The sound is clean, with plenty of reserve power for transients—attacks do indeed attack. There also seems to be less “falloff” at a distance (possibly TruSource at work), and enough level to hit you hard if that’s what you want. The overall response is smooth, with no midrange boxiness, and the highs have presence without being screechy. Do a bass slide, and you won’t hear any response holes in the low end.
Even the little DLM8 is plenty loud and balanced. It’s also extremely compact (about 11" x 12" x 11.5") and light. For more low end and punch, the DLM12 is a logical upgrade, but I don’t see you needing the companion DLM12S subwoofer for keyboard monitoring, unless you need to fill a large club with no help from the main P.A. The rugged enclosures are made of ABS plastic, have a kickstand for angling as a floor monitor, and with 20-gauge speaker grilles, if something falls on the speaker while it’s angled back, the speaker will most likely survive better than what falls on it.
Each of the DLM digital mixer’s two inputs has a level control, three-band EQ, and send for one of the 16 onboard effects, which cover reverb, chorus, and delay. The effects may be icing, but they sound good—you might prefer the reverb to those in your keyboards. Globally, there are six speaker voicing options, a multiband feedback reducer (which helps with vocals), overload protection, three storable presets, and a switchable 300ms delay for balcony placement.
Both Mackie DLM models include the same electronics. Of the two inputs, one is a combo jack with a mic/line switch (no phantom power), the other a combo jack for instrument or line—with both set to line, you can plug in a stereo keyboard.
While there’s an XLR thru jack, it carries either the signal from input 1, or a mix of the two inputs, so you can’t send a true stereo signal to the front-of-house—unless, of course, you use two of them or put a compact mixer upstream.
The DLM series is all about portable power in a convenient form factor, with clarity that adds a bit more of a hi-fi studio monitor vibe. For my money, that’s what makes it ideal as a keyboard amp.--Craig Anderton
The QSC K series are among the classiest looking speakers, all presenting a stealthy appearance onstage and creating the perfect angle to project sound directly at you. The eight- and ten-inch models also weigh under 32 pounds, making for an easy schlep factor. Many of our gigs—and yours, probably—involve bad weather, dark hallways, late nights, and some kind of ramp or elevator only if we’re lucky, so we appreciate this.
I play with a number of different bands. My tribute band Pink Freud plays with much more “rock” volume, so it demanded a higher-powered system; not surprisingly, this gig also involves the most elaborate of my keyboard rigs. I alternately used the QSC K10 and K12 (those model numbers correspond to woofer size), and Yamaha’s DSR-112 (the model previous to the DXR series, which is also in this roundup) here. I really loved the QSC K12. Its tight but big low end, smooth highs, and well defined midrange make it one of the nicest sounding amps I’ve ever had. My Hammond XK1 organ (run through a Neo Instruments Ventilator rotary pedal) was mellow when needed and screamed when necessary, and yet my S90ES piano sounded fantastic through the same speaker, even at high volume when organ and piano were played together
When I’d occasionally thump a Moog Taurus bass synth sound, the K12 easily supported the low end for the whole band while our bassist was picking the “tick-tock” at the beginning of Pink Floyd’s “Time.” I eventually (and at first, reluctantly) tried QSC’s smaller K10 in its place—and was completely won over. All my patches sounded killer through it, including my piano, and even the Taurus didn’t have that familiar flatulent sound of asking a woofer for more bass than it has to offer.
Though all three QSC models (K8, K10, and K12) have a 1,000-watt power rating and 1.75" compression tweeter in common, the K10 became the mainstay of my Pink Freud rig thanks to its smaller size and nine-pound difference. It sits floor-monitor style atop a pair of stacked SKB racks, and fills the whole stage—which hosts a drum kit, bass rig, and vintage Marshall 50-watt half stack that the guitarist leaves at 10—with keyboards. Minimoog and ARP String Ensemble emulations sound fantastic, and even my thick pads and washes from Spectrasonics Atmosphere are enormous . . . in mono, no less. After I switched to the K10 for keyboards, my drummer and I bought a pair of QSC powered subwoofers, and now use these along with the K12s as the band P.A. We do some gigs without the subs, using only the K12s up front, and they hold up amazingly well.
I also play with a variety rock band covering everything from Tom Petty to Lady Gaga. That band runs only vocals through their P.A., so my keyboard amp needs to fill the room. I take the supposed runt of the QSC litter, the K8, running just one cable from my S90ES, and I have plenty of power. Using a speaker stand, I elevate the K8 just over my head so as not to blister my ears, and every once in a while, I’ll be asked to turn down “a hair.” Like the K10 and 12, it boasts 1,000 watts, but I wouldn’t punish its 8" woofer with Taurus pedals at high volume. Everything else, including my benchmark S90ES piano sound, kills through it.
You’ll appreciate the K10’s light weight at the end of the night. But if you need just a bit more brute power to punish a guitarist or two, the K12 might be your weapon of choice. Either model will do the job and do it right. --Tony Orant
Yamaha’s newest foray into the powered speaker market is the DXR line. We chose the DXR10 and DXR12 (so named for their woofer sizes) as the most likely models a keyboard player would carry, though the family also includes 8" and 15" models.
Using my Nord Stage 2, I was impressed with the reproduction of the pianos at high volume. Digital pianos can sound artificial and unpleasant at rock-band volumes, but the DXRs actually complemented the sound at those levels, imparting a strong low end with even midrange response. The DXRs didn’t disappoint on electric pianos, either. Whether going for clean Rhodes or grungy Wurly, the DXR10s reproduced faithfully. With organ, my Hammond SK1 and Ventilator combo sounded warm and up front.
One of my bands plays a lot of ’80s hair anthems,” and the requisite layers of FM synths, virtual analog sounds, and pianos never sounded compressed or brittle, even at high volumes. Sounds with sharper attacks really cut through the guitars. One of my favorite setups involves a synth bass drone with a white noise wind layer, an octave of sitar, a string pad, and a grainy Mellotron lead line. The DXR10 really did a great job of presenting all those sounds at once, without adding compressing artifacts, as some drivers do when asked to do too much.
While I don’t play may gigs that require left-hand keyboard bass, my ears say that if you supply the bass parts for jazz from your clonewheel organ, or for synth pop or EDM from your analog synth, I’d recommend stepping up to the DXR12. Do so, and I can’t imagine you’d be left wanting. That said, I generally preferred the DXR10, if mainly for portability and how nicely it stacked atop my gear rack.
I typically work in medium to large clubs, plus outdoor festivals in the summer. The ’80s band I play with has two guitarists with Marshall half-stacks and a loud drummer, but with the front-of-house P.A. handling the audience, a single DXR10 worked extremely well as the onstage keyboard monitor for the whole band. I’ll aim it across the stage and while the guitarists are happy, the drummer will eventually want a little more. The DXR10 projects well enough that rather than turn it up, I can just adjust the aim.
A keyboardist friend was at one of my shows, standing to the side and about 12 feet away, and commented that my keys were “rippin’ loud” at that distance but sounded great. The front-of-house P.A. in that room is rather anemic, especially with 150 to 200 people soaking up the sound, but my stage volume and tone were such that I could be heard throughout the room. I trigger a couple of Moog Taurus bass pedal sounds, and the DXR10 handled it at “drummer volume,” again without sounding compressed or flatulent. I’ve been using the QSC K10 for some time, and while it tends to sound just a little smoother timbre-wise, when pushed it gets crunchy more quickly than the DXR.
For multi-keyboard rigs, you’ll want to add a compact mixer, but the DXR family does enough onboard mixing to work as a standalone P.A. for a single keyboard, mic, and iPod (see Figure X). A switch presets the EQ curve for use as a monitor (low end cut) or front-of-house main (accented lows and highs), but I found that setting it to off (flat) sounded best with my keyboards.
The DXR line’s rear panel has an XLR input with switchable mic/line gain, a dedicated thru that passes only this input, left and right 1/4" ins, and stereo RCA ins. You can set the Link out to send a mono sum of all channels (as for a house P.A. wired in mono) or just the right channel of connected gear (as for a second DXR).
The DXR10 has just one handle (on top) but is surprisingly easy to throw around. The DXR12 has two side handles, and is well balanced enough that you can carry it using one handle without it thumping into your leg while walking. While I love my QSC K series speakers, the DXRs’ shape makes them easier to stack atop one another, pack in the car, and angle as a floor monitor. The DXRs also have two pole sockets: one for straight firing and the other for a seven-degree downward tilt. I gig with mine on its side atop my 12-space SKB rack. When loading, I leave it on top of my rack but face the grill down, and roll it to and from the car. Unlike my QSC, the DXR has never taken a tumble, even when my cart hit an unexpected bump. --Tony Orant