For many years KRK Systems has been known for its extensive range of near-field monitoring speakers, which are intended for use in both amateur and professional recording applications (visit most any professional music store and you’re likely to see them prominently displayed). More recently, however, KRK has branched out to offer a two-model range of “Professional Monitoring” headphones, with the KNS-8400 ($149.99) serving as the flagship model in the line.
How successful is the KNS-8400 as a monitoring headphone? We’ll come to that point in a moment, but before we do we need look at an even more fundamental question: namely, what exactly is a “monitoring headphone” supposed to do? My practical experience is that almost all manufacturers of monitoring-oriented speakers and headphones will use fairly similar adjectives to describe their products. No matter which monitoring product is being portrayed, you can expect to hear descriptive terms such as “accurate,” “natural,” “faithful,” “revealing,” “honest,” etc. But while the terms used to describe self-proclaimed monitoring products tend to be quite similar, the sound of those products can and does differ, sometimes substantially. How can that be?
The answer, I think, involves the fact that there are (at least) two overlapping but not identical schools of thought regarding what monitors should be and do. One school of thought holds that monitors should be precisely accurate and highly transparent mirrors that exactly reflect the sonic characteristics of recordings—which implies that the products should have, as a minimum, neutral and extremely evenly balanced tonal response.
Another school of thought, however, holds that monitors should ideally make it easy for recording engineers to hear minute variations in textures, timbres, and resolution within recordings. An often unspoken expectation is that monitoring devices will do a particularly good job of exposing sonic variations that fall in frequency bands where problems, if any, would be most noticeable or annoying later on. You can hear some of this emphasis in a KRK positioning statement for the KNS-8400, which states, “After all, hearing what is wrong with your mix is just as important as hearing what is right!”
While these two schools of thought aren’t necessarily mutually incompatible, they do tend to lead listeners to focus on different priorities. My sense is that adherents to the former school of thought place a premium on monitors that, first and foremost, offer dead-neutral tonal balance, though other performance factors are of course also important. In contrast, adherents to the latter school of thought may be willing to accept minor variations and tradeoffs in tonal balance, provided that their monitors meet the primary requirement of helping listeners quickly identify (and then presumably fix) flaws in the recording.
With these background observations in mind, let me offer the initial assessment that KRK’s KNS-8400 is geared more to please those in the “find and fix sonic flaws” camp, and less to please those in the “neutral tonal balance comes first” camp. As you might expect, this is an apparent design choice that has some far-reaching sonic implications, as we’ll discuss in a moment.