Best Studio Monitors: The Ultimate Buying Guide

Best Studio Monitors

You love creating great-sounding music at home – whether it’s sultry smooth Stevie Wonder covers, rambunctious Rachmaninoff rhapsodies, or big bassy club hits – so how do you ensure that you are getting the best sound out of your mixes?

One of the best ways is with a pair of studio monitors.

On my journey as a composer and audio engineer, I find being able to listen to my music through studio monitors is vital for producing the sound I want to create. It can be a pleasure that is second to none.

You notice minute details you simply would not have heard through headphones or in-built computer speakers – these listening methods don’t provide the same accuracy a set of studio monitors can.

You may be in the process of setting up your home studio and getting ready to take it to the next level. Choosing the right pair of studio monitors can be tricky. However, we’re here to boil down some key criteria that will make it easier for you.

What are Important Features to Look For in Studio Monitors?

Monitor Speakers

Although specifications of studio monitors can help you narrow your choices, they don’t tell you how your monitors truly sound – so take them with a pinch of salt.

Ultimately, trust your ears and the gear of professional or fellow musicians. There’s no substitute for careful and critical listening.

Frequency RangeMaximum SPL Sensitivity Impedance Near, Mid or Far-Field? Trim Controls Automatic Room Control Dispersion Convenience Features

Seeing as accuracy is key in selecting a pair of studio monitors, you want them to be able to handle the full frequency range of your recordings or playing.

Most stereo monitors list their bottom end as hertz and their top end as kilohertz e.g. 50Hz20kHz.

Frequency Range waves

Whilst the human ear can in theory hear from 20Hz to 20kHz, not many of us actually do (particularly those of us closer to having a pension).

What you really want to look at is the frequency response of the monitors, which is the analysis of frequency versus amplitude.

For example, a small set of speakers may be able to reach a low range of 30Hz, but the amplitude at that frequency may be -15dB; making the low end practically non-existent. This is helpful for giving a simplified indication of a monitor’s accuracy.

Be careful however, as comparing monitors by frequency response can be of limited usefulness. This is because the frequency response of monitors can change according to sometimes overlooked details like their placement and surrounding.

What you can be sure of is that most monitors that have a 5-inch woofer will drop off at around 50Hz, meaning if you need to have a clear low-end you may want to invest in something a little bigger.

That being said, you can find smaller speakers that really kick down there. At the end of the day, your ears are the best judge of what is good and what is not.

SPL stands for Sound Pressure Level. Maximum SPL represents the greatest volume level a monitor can achieve in decibels, but doesn’t really tell you in what conditions that volume is achieved.

It also doesn’t tell you how much distortion happens at this level.

Volume level knob

Some manufacturers add a distortion component to help you understand how a speaker behaves.

This is known as Total Harmonic Distortion (THD), which is a measurement of distortion, usually represented as a decimal percentage of the signal e.g. <0.03%.

The closer the percentage to zero, the less distortion and the more transparent the sound is.

So, for example, you may see a reading that states ‘108dB SPL @ 0.6% THD’ which tells us that the speaker has a lot of punch with quite a bit of clarity.

This describes a passive speaker’s efficiency – the amount of power the speaker requires to reach a certain level. This measurement is intended to give you an idea of how much power your amplifier needs to produce sound.

For example, a spec of 92dB SPL at 1 watt/1 meter means the monitor will produce an SPL of 92dB measured one meter away with a one-watt input.

In order to increase this volume by 3dB you need to double the power input. Therefore, for 95dB SPL we need 2 watts; 98dB SPL – 4 watts, 101dB SPL – 8 watts and so on.

This could be useful in choosing your speakers based on what room you might be putting them in. For a bigger room, you may want a bigger wattage.

For a home studio, this generally won’t come into play in your decision making, but it is useful to understand this concept if you aim to take your talents to the professional level.

Broadly, this has to do with the relationship between passive monitors and their amplifiers.

This specification is irrelevant in relation to active monitors, as their amps have already been matched to the speaker by the manufacturer, but if you are choosing passive monitors, this specification is vital.

Impedance

For passive monitors, impedance is the average resistance that the speaker presents to the amplifier – as a speaker’s resistance varies with frequency.

As impedance drops below 4 ohms, some amplifiers may be able to develop more power. However, as the impedance gets lower, the amplifier becomes prone to short-circuiting. This is, rather obviously, bad for overall performance.

Most monitors have an impedance ranging from 4 to 8 ohms, and most amplifiers don’t have any problems driving this range of impedances.

You will often see these terms near-field, mid-field or far-field within the description of a monitor. This refers to the configuration a monitor is designed for.

Near-Field vs Mid-Field vs Far-Field Studio Monitors

Near-field monitors are the prime choice for a close listening distance, while far-field monitors are designed to push sound accurately over a longer distance.

To optimise the accuracy of the speakers’ sound, they should be angled in such a way that your head forms the center point of an equilateral triangle between the two woofers. This often referred to as the ‘sweet spot.’

In near-field monitors, this sweet spot is designed to be quite close to the speakers (around 1-2 meters away generally).

Near-field monitors are the most common choices for a home studio setup as they allow you to better hear the sound coming directly from your speakers rather than what reflects off the walls, floor, and ceiling.

If your room is larger, then mid-field or far-field monitors may be better suited for listening.

That being said, acoustic treatment – particularly in small rooms – is still ideal to absolve all room reflections, regardless of monitor choice.

High- and low-frequency trim controls are very important when tuning the monitors to your room.

For example, a low-frequency trim control can help control booming bass coming from a speaker positioned close to a corner.

If your listening area is very reflective, you could trim down the high-frequencies that bounce around the walls.

At the end of the day you may not get the choice as to where your monitors are going to live; sometimes the spare bedroom is the only option, so trim controls can counteract the unhelpful environments of Hobson’s choice placements.

Recording Studio Room

For me this is like a self-driving car; whilst it may be very high-tech, convenient and advanced, it can sometimes be dangerous. Exclusive to active speakers, this function incorporates a signal generator and measurement system within the monitors.

To use this system, place a calibration microphone at the ‘sweet spot’ (listening position) and put the system into test mode. This emits a signal that the microphone captures, the results of which are analysed by a microprocessor.

Corrective equalization is then applied to the monitors to compensate for room deficiencies in a ‘best fit’ performance for the speakers.

While it may leave the guesswork out of using trim controls, whether it gets you the results you want is up to your ears. It is usually a good idea to train your ears to hear and amend room deficiencies, rather than relying on machine learning to do the grunt work for you.

Audio Dispersion

When you see monitors in studios, sometimes they are positioned horizontally and sometimes they are positioned vertically. This is generally due to the intended dispersion pattern by the manufacturer – that is, the depth of the angle at which they distribute sound.

If you intend to place your speakers horizontally (on its side), find out if the pattern will change (most FAQ websites or forums will have the answer for you if it isn’t in the user manual).

Not all monitors contain these, but these include a power switch on the front panel, a power indicator, and volume control.

A lot of models have the power switch and volume control on the rear, which makes it difficult to reach and sometimes you may knock your speakers out of their stereo-image configuration if you’re not careful.

If you are using a USB audio interface or mixing desk you can control the volume from there and the volume will be linked between both monitors.

What Things to Consider Before Buying Studio Monitors?

Price Confusion

Often you will see monitors listed as either pairs or as a single replacement monitor and this can often lead to confusion.

When searching on Amazon or any other online retailer you may see monitors listed at an incredibly cheap price but always be sure to click the link to make sure it isn’t a single replacement speaker.

What am I using them for?

A funny thing about studio monitors is the first time you listen to a piece you know through them, it may sound all wrong. However, it’s only because your ears are used to consumer-market speakers that contain the tuning tricks for boosting bass or sharpening high-ends.

Home Studio Work Desk

Ideally, if you are using your speakers for creating professional sounding tracks, you want to get used to the idea of listening to them with as flat a frequency response as possible.

However, if you are using them solely for keyboard playback and decide that actually you like a bit of bass boost low-end, you may also be able to find a set of monitors that fit your requirements.

The important part to remember is that your use for the monitors should be the starting point for deciding which monitors you want to buy.

Where will I be using my speakers?

Size:

The room you intend to use your monitors in will determine what size of speaker you require. If you have a small room in which to work, a large set of monitors may be unnecessary.

The larger the woofer size – the louder the monitor. The woofer size is often indicated by the name of the speaker (e.g. Yamaha HS55-inch woofers, Yamaha HS88-inch woofers), but also these statistics are available from the manufacturer’s website.

Studio Monitor Sizes

Now, whilst this may be a personal preference, I find that smaller monitors can actually perform better at creating a flatter and fairer frequency response, whereas bigger speakers (10 inch plus) can often be unfairly weighted to the bottom end.

This is generally only the case with lower-quality monitors however, as a larger monitor is quite often a necessity for styles of music that require an accurate bass reference.

The larger the speaker, the better the detail of the bass response, which is also vital in avoiding the problem of many smaller woofers – hyping the high-frequencies and causing an inaccurate, undetailed representation of a track’s midrange.

Placement:

As well as the room, you may want to think what you will place your monitors on.

Are they going to be simply sitting on a desk? Will you buy specific monitor stands for them? Will they be nestled on a book-shelf? Again this will inform your decision as to what size of speakers you will get, but it will also make you consider one of the speed-bumps with stereo monitors – resonant coupling.

Resonant coupling is when both the monitors and the surface that the monitors are standing on, vibrate at the same frequencies, which in turn cause the monitors to perform inaccurately.

These vibrations are caused by either the monitors themselves or another source that causes the surface under the monitors to vibrate. This could create phase anomalies as well as decrease transient response.

In order to combat this, it might be worth thinking about creating a separation between your studio monitors and the surface you intend to place them on.

The easiest way to do this is through acoustic separation in the form of a recoil stabilizer or monitor isolation pad. This is a piece of acoustic foam that raises your monitor off the surface it is intended for, thus eliminating disruptive coupling and providing a stable base for the monitor.

These vary in size and design, but buying a recognized brand may be worth the comfort of knowing the accuracy of your monitors is not jeopardized.

Studio Monitor Placement

I find the most accurate representation of studio monitors is often found when the monitors are completely separate from the workstation or keyboard. So placing them firstly on monitor stands and with an isolation pad underneath them can guarantee a more accurate transient response from your monitors.

Should I opt for Active or Passive monitors?

What studio monitor to choose?

Neither design is better per se. If you decide to go with passive monitors, remember that you will have to buy an amplifier. Good passive monitors are only as good as their amplifiers (the same can be said of microphones and their preamps).

Amplifiers may seem to do nothing else except amplify the signal of the input source (e.g. your keyboard), but in reality they may add discrepancies to the performance of your monitors by adding nonlinearities.

Don’t expect to get great results from a $1000 set of monitors plugged into a $30 amp.

Active monitors have already made that decision for you. As discussed before, built-in amplifiers in active monitors reduce any mashing of frequency bands (highs, mids and lows getting muddled) and also allows the manufacturer to build protection that prevents amplifier and speaker damage if you like playing with the volume control too much.

However, active monitors do not allow you to upgrade as easily as passive monitors as you need to by a new set of powered monitors once your finances allow it. They do allow you to plug in and play without much setting up, which is highly desirable amongst some users.

Two-or-three way design?

Again there is no iron-clad guideline for stating that three-way is better than two-way design or vice versa. If anything, whatever sounds best to you will be the real defining point in decision-making.

In fact, many audio professionals believe that a two-way design is better at any price point, because the cost is divided amongst fewer components.

Quality is about design and not so much about the care to which that design has been implemented, however, it is a very subjective choice at the end of the day.

Will it work with the equipment I have already?

Aside from deciding whether you would like powered or unpowered monitors, you should check the connections at the back of the monitors to ensure that they will work with whatever workstation or keyboard you have.

The outputs on your keyboard may only have connections for quarter-inch (1/4”) jacks, but the monitors you really desire only have XLR inputs, you may want to consider a different pair of monitors.

Luckily, you can buy cables that provide a transition between different connection types. Monitors usually have 1/4″ TRS, XLR, RCA or S/PDIF inputs. Some offer only unbalanced and balanced inputs and some have both.

Audio connectors

Balanced and unbalanced signals may have an impact on radio frequency interference, which can cause buzzes and distortion when you hook up your studio monitors.

Balanced audio uses three conductors to carry audio signal whilst unbalanced contains only two. The third conductor in balanced audio is used to ground the signal whilst the negative conductor of unbalanced audio doubles up for the ground.

The advantage of a balanced signal means that there is less chance that radio frequency interference will upset the audio signal. Generally, a +4dB balanced signal is the way to go with studio monitors (you may find a switch on the back of your monitors that controls this) especially if you have to run your cables a long way from your output to your monitors.

However, on shorter cable runs (less than 3 meters/10 feet, for example) you should have no problem with radio frequency regardless of balanced or unbalanced signal.

If you do find that there are radio frequency interferences occurring with your stereo monitors this may be because of a ground fault with your room electricity. It is best to get this checked out by an electrician or ask the opinion of an audio professional before breaking the piggy bank.

Best Studio Monitors

Home recording studio speakers

In this section, we’ll talk about the best studio monitors available on the market today, covering several price ranges so that you can choose based on your budget.

If you’re new to this market and don’t know all the nuances of choosing the ‘right’ set of monitors, we’ve prepared an in-depth buying guide that will help you find your perfect set of speakers even if two days ago you didn’t know what studio monitors are!


Best Studio Monitors Under $200 (for Beginner Studios)

Presonus Eris 4.5

Presonus Eris 4.5

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These monitors are unique to this list as they have a 4.5-inch woofer, which is unlike many other speakers.

When I listened to these, I tried not to think of them as just media speakers as so many reviewers before me had mentioned. To my surprise, they were quite accurate!

The highs were very crisp, and whilst the bass wasn’t altogether there, I did not feel like it was unnoticeable. The mids were very rich and warm, and the center image was well defined.

I would place these more in the reference speaker category as they are good for beginners who are starting out on their studio monitor journey.

They also have some easy to understand trim controls on the back of the speaker so that the sound can be easily tweaked and an ‘Acoustic Space’ switch which allows you to cut volume levels depending on your speaker positioning – making them easy to adjust to any room.

Along with this, there are multiple TRS and RCA inputs as well as a 3.5mm output to allow for easy headphone monitoring. Altogether a well-thought-out product.

Pros
  • Easy to tweak the sound
  • Acoustic switch
  • Multiple I/O
Cons
  • Bass may be a bit weak
  • Some might find the highs a little harsh

Behringer STUDIO 50 USB

Behringer Studio 50 USB

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Ideal studio monitors for beginners, the Behringer Studio 50 USB will allow you to gain that professional studio experience without breaking the bank.

To my ears, these speakers lack power in the bottom-end, whilst the mid and high ends tend to overpower. However, if coupled with a subwoofer they could be very impactful as the clarity is still very good across the spectrum.

As suggested in the name they also contain a neat USB-input for direct connection of digital stereo audio sources as well as two analog inputs of XLR and 1/4” TRS connectors that can be combined for multiple source playback.

Pros
  • Cheap
  • USB Input
  • Multiple playback
Cons
  • Weak bass response
  • Overpowering mids and highs.

Mackie CR4

Mackie CR4

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Like the Behringer’s, these Mackie CR4’s are ideal if you are just starting out. Mackie’s higher-tier range of products are top quality, yet even their budget products are surprisingly decent. However, there is a bit of care to be taken when listening to these.

With a frequency response of 70Hz to 20kHz the CR4’s are obviously not the best on the list – the frequency response is not as flat as one would expect from bigger speakers and the low-end is severely lacking.

These are the manufacturer’s compensations for the small 4-inch woofers and great looking design. In spite of their inaccuracy, the CR4’s sound fidelity is more than acceptable for their small, compact design.

One of the best features is that the power and volume controls are located on the front of the speaker, which is great for ease of use. An added AUX input allows you to plug in another device.

The back of the speaker has both TRS and RCA inputs to allow for multiple sources.

Pros
  • Great looking design and excellent build
  • Front power and volume controls
  • Aux input
  • Excellent price point
Cons
  • Not exactly the most accurate of monitors
  • A tad on the smaller side

Best Studio Monitors Under $500 (for Intermediate Studios)

Yamaha HS5/8

Yamaha HS8 HS5

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These iconic studio monitors are based on a previous Yamaha version called the NS10’s, which were discontinued in 2001. The HS8’s became the replacement for the NS10’s and mimic their design with the signature white coned woofers.

These speakers were the workhorse of my musical output for the past 10 years and when I downsized my studio and included the HS5’s, I was surprised at just how similarly the speakers behaved.

The frequency response of the HS5s stands at 54Hz – 30kHz whilst the HS8s are listed at 38Hz – 30kHz. This means that the HS8 has a better low-frequency response – which is proven both by theory and by the ear test when I listened to them. This is something you would expect from a speaker that has a bigger 8” cone (the HS5 has a 5” cone – hence the name).

What is true of both the HS8 and HS5 monitors is that they are reliably accurate.  They are also very durable and purchasing them will result in a long, trustworthy relationship between you and your monitors.

The only downside is that the trim and volume controls are on the rear of the cabinet for both models.

Pros
  • Really affordable price point for the quality you receive
  • Ideal flat frequency response
  • Legendary heritage; an aspiring mixing engineer’s perfect companion
Cons
  • Not quite stellar low-frequency response on the HS5 model
  • Volume and trim controls on the rear

JBL 305P MKII

JBL LSR305P MKIIS

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So, having listened to these badboys in the store listening room, I was really impressed by the punch they gave out.

Now it may have just been me, the environment I was listening in or the demo pair setup being incorrectly balanced, but there was a slight hiss I experienced when listening to them.

This is not uncommon amongst stereo monitors and often can be something you become accustomed to as time goes by – it doesn’t really hinder your mixing ability unless it becomes overpowering.

In this instance, it didn’t affect my monitoring experience and I felt that they had a great, broad detailed stereo image.

JBL have been leaders in this field for a long time and have a patented Image Control Waveguide technology built into the speakers that allows for an accurate and flat response with a bit of low-end kick.

These 5-inch woofer monitors are a little taller than most, which allows for the bass boost, and are guaranteed to be durable having undergone an unheard-of 100 hours of testing without failure before reaching store shelves.

Pros
  • Nice low-end response
  • Hi-tech image control
  • Durable
Cons
  • Potentially difficult to balance

KRK Rokit 5 G4

KRK ROKIT 5 G4

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If you’ve ever watched a video from a music producer on YouTube, you’ll more than likely see a set of speakers with yellow cones in the background.

Yup, these are the KRK Rokit range and they are hugely popular amongst music producers — especially those specializing in electronic, hip-hop and pop.

Nevertheless, the KRK Rokit range is versatile and is suitable for all genres of music-making.

For those starting out and really wanting to make leaps and bounds in their mixing ability I would definitely recommend the Rokit 5 G4’s as a starting point.

KRK’s normally have a reputation for being boomy and bass-heavy however, when I listened to these they were incredibly flat and up there with the Yamaha HS5’s in terms of frequency response.

They contain exceptional low-end extension (high-precision bass ports in these speakers) and superb accuracy, boasting a range of 42Hz – 40kHz whilst not losing focus on well-defined mids.

Pros
  • Great flat frequency response
  • Great value for money
  • Comes in two different designs (black and white)
Cons
  • Rear mounted volume and trim controls

M-Audio BX5 D3

M-AUDIO BX5 D3

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When I picked these up to move them at my local audio store the M-Audio BX5 D3’s felt a lot heavier and solid than most 5-inch monitors. Needless to say, the build quality on these speakers is great and they can go toe-to-toe with any other brand out there.

The stereo image is fantastically broad and noticeable when compared to other 5-inch speakers on this list. This element is very impressive for a nearfield monitor.

With a frequency range of 52Hz to 35kHz, these monitors provide clarity across the spectrum. They are small but powerful, 100W of power to be exact which could annoy the neighbours if you crank up the volume.

However, the acoustic space control on the rear of the speakers really takes care of any booming bass, and the dual 1/4″ TRS and XLR outputs allow you to have different sources to connect with.


Pros
  • Great build quality
  • Small and powerful
  • Dual connections and acoustic space control
Cons
  • Rear trim controls
  • Might annoy the neighbours

Best Studio Monitors Under $1000 (for the Serious Home Studios)

Adam Audio A7X

ADAM AUDIO A7X

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These monitors are a great mid to high-end buy for the more advanced audio engineers out there. If you’ve already had a set of stereo monitors, then these are a pair to aspire to.

I found these have exceptional transient response, which is a definitive feature of all the Adam Audio AX series monitors, which are powered by the X-ART tweeter design.

While Adam Audio is a relatively new company by studio monitor standards (established in 1999) the precision German engineering that their models boast has built their reputation as a reliable and premium manufacturer.

The A7X boasts a frequency response with a high end of 50kHz and a low end of 42Hz. A beautifully designed sleek black cabinet means these speakers look good in any setup.

They also have front panel controls as well as front bass ports. These are important as they allow you to better interpret bass frequencies when the speakers are placed closer to walls.

Pros
  • Great transient response
  • High-end sounds crisp and clean
  • Front bass ports and front panel controls
Cons
  • A little more expensive than other monitors on this list
  • May take a while to get used to if you have listened to other monitors

Mackie HR824mk2

MACKIE HR824MK2

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These monitors are truly outstanding for their price point. Whilst being on the higher-end of the price scale amongst this list, they are certainly worth it. There are two main factors that really make the HR824mk2’s stand out:

1) Instead of a bass port (like the KRK’s), these have a passive radiator installed in the rear of the monitor. This allows for accuracy in the lower frequencies.

This is what’s known as a sealed monitor and not a ported monitor. Ported monitors are designed to accentuate the low-end, which can bring about inaccuracy when focusing on bass.

2) The tweeter is surrounded by a wide-dispersal horn. This spreads the high frequencies out further around the stereo image, making the center image feel deeper and more accurate.

Besides that, the Mackie boasts a zero-edge baffle that minimizes sound diffraction and internal damping that eliminates midrange artifacts – really solidifying the fact that these are truly high-end, accurate monitors.

Pros
  • Highly accurate
  • Passive radiator for accurate low-end frequencies
  • Wide-dispersal of high-end frequencies
Cons
  • A little more expensive
  • Some people experience longevity issues 4-5 years down the line

Genelec 8030c

GENELEC 8030C

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This company has been creating such fantastic monitors for such a long time that anything with the Genelec name on it tends to be a life-long purchase. This is no different with the 8030c’s.

They are the most solid 5-inch woofer monitors on this list thanks to their die-cast aliminium enclosure.  They make up part of the 8000 series from Genelec that are so synonymous with durable, reliable, high-end studios all over the world.

These are such clean sounding monitors that allow you to not only mix music, but take on dialogue or sound design jobs too.

They do take a little getting used to as the transparency is that clean, but thanks to trim controls on the back of the cabinet you can adjust the low-end if necessary.

The only downside is that there are only XLR inputs on the back of the monitor, but it is nice that this is placed facing upwards so that your cables are out of the way of any trim control usage.

They also come with a beautiful futuristic isopod stand that increases separation from where they are placed.


Pros
  • Clean sounding and incredibly accurate
  • Durable and reliable
  • Solid
Cons
  • Only XLR inputs

What Are Studio Monitors?

Studio monitors are in essence a set of speakers designed to playback the music you create. However, they aren’t just any set of speakers.

They are highly accurate speakers designed to analyze the best (and worst!) parts of your sound. Technically they are different from other sets of speakers and here’s why.


Active vs Passive Monitors

Active vs Passive Studio Monitors

Studio monitors are commonly defined as either active or powered monitors. Active means that they have a power amplifier built into the speaker cabinet (the body of the speaker itself).

The alternative is passive speakers, which require a separate power amplifier to work – much like home stereo or hi-fi speakers.

A quick way to check whether your speakers are active or passive? The back of an active speaker will always have a mains outlet.

Active speakers allow for higher accuracy in sound because each of the speaker components has its own individually powered amplifier.

Studio Monitor Woofer Tweeter Cabinet

The woofer (the big cone at the bottom of the speaker), the tweeter (the smaller cone at the top of the speaker) and the mid-range speaker (not that common, but it is available on some speakers) all have their own powered amps.

It allows for increased separation in frequencies and a greater dynamic response – the differences between pianissimo and fortissimo can really jump out at you with the right set of monitors.

Passive monitors, on the other hand, require a separate powered amplifier, but they have their own advantages too.

Because of this requirement, they allow you some flexibility in customizing the components and set up of your multi-speaker array. Additionally, they are usually cheaper.


High Quality Engineering

Due to the intention of monitors to give the listener the truest of sounds, they require intricate engineering.

The modern monitor is made up of three major parts – we’ve already mentioned one of them: the drivers (woofers and tweeters). The other two are the cabinet and the electronic circuitry.

Studio Monitor inside components

The final part for the active monitor is the separate powered amplifiers for the drivers. This exhaustive and comprehensive engineering highlights one of the main differences between studio monitors and home stereo speakers – price.

The detail and refined quality of monitors’ components naturally coincide with a steep incline in price relative to your average hi-fi speaker. That being said, if you have a limited budget you can still find a pair that will do the job for you.


Drivers

As we mentioned briefly before, there are two types of main drivers for the studio monitors: woofers and tweeters. This is known as a two-way monitor setup.

The less common three-way monitor setup has an additional midrange driver.

Woofers handle the low, low-mid and midrange frequencies whilst the tweeters handle the high-mids and high frequencies. In the three-way monitor the midrange driver focuses solely on midrange frequencies allowing for even greater separation.

You can also add a subwoofer, which is housed as a separate speaker, which would handle the very low frequencies. It is not entirely necessary to have one, unless you are producing bass-heavy music such as hip-hop or electronic dance.

Woofers, midrange drivers and subwoofers are all usually constructed in a conical shape with a dust cap at the center and a tough, but flexible surrounding that allows the cone and voice coil to move in and out when sound waves are pushed through the speaker.


Cabinets

The cabinet is the housing for all the internal parts of the monitor but is just as important as the inner workings.

The material of the cabinet can affect the performance of the drivers, and engineers ensure that the shape and composition of it is as non-resonant as possible.

For this reason, monitor cabinets are built from sturdy materials such as metal, or dense plastics with internal bracing and joints. They are also made from wood composites to eliminate unwanted resonance.

Why and When You Might Need Them?

Flat Signal

Unlike home stereo speakers which often contain built-in tweaks to boost the bass response or a similar equalizer (EQ) effect, studio monitors aim to produce audio signals that are flat across the frequency spectrum.

This means that your bass, mids and highs are consistent and the result is the same no matter the volume level – studio monitors don’t emphasize one group of frequencies over another.

Audio sound waves

However, not all ‘flat response’ monitors prevent the sound from being colored. Unfortunately, all speakers color the sound to varying degrees – if they didn’t, there would be no need for different brands!

What a monitor will provide is a reference that is accurate enough for a producer to make critical judgements about a mix that will transfer to being played on other sound systems without sounding terrible (if it sounds good on these, it should sound pretty good on anything – which is part of the process of mastering).

Consider a set of speakers that understates a particular bass frequency by, say, 2db. If an engineer is mixing in this range, they will compensate for this ‘dip’ in the frequency range by boosting this frequency. On this set of speakers, this will sound correct.

If this were then played on a more ‘neutral’ set of speakers, then that frequency would be 2db louder in the bass frequencies than it needed to be. Therefore, we can see how each set of monitors may color the audio in a different way.

 


Transient Response

speaker response

Transient response is equally important and often overlooked. Basically, transients are the parts of a sound wave where it changes from one state (either compressed or rarefied) to the other.

For example, if we play a sine wave through our monitors, we want the cones to react at the correct speed of the frequency being played from the audio signal.

If the speaker doesn’t move fast enough we may have an inaccurate transient response and what we hear may not be as clear as we require.

This illustrates the importance of how fast a speaker can move, and accurately replicate transients. Effectively, it informs the listener accurately of where every sound starts and ends, and how correctly everything actually sounds.


Improve Your Mix

Being able to have clarity of sound is a real privilege in a home studio setup.

Whether you are playing for your own pleasure or creating tracks intended for commercial use, the ability to dial down to the itty-bitty-gritty details of any audio you create is so vital.

Studio monitors remove a lot of guesswork and should improve everything you do, whether that’s mixing or playing your keyboard through them.

Audio Mix Musical Instruments

We all know that certain digital pianos are able to create great clarity of sound nowadays, and although some people may think that they don’t live up to the same quality as acoustic pianos, their practical use in a home recording studio is unmatched when you want to create great sounding piano music.

Using studio monitors will allow you to really enjoy the dynamic range and clarity that some digital pianos are capable of.


Better Than Headphones

Headphones vs Studio Monitors

Perhaps you are tired of listening to your music or playing on your headphones. Listening all day using closed-back headphones can create fatigue when listening due to the close proximity of the speakers within them to your inner ear.

Studio monitors on the other hand provide some distance between your ears and the audio source; meaning your ears are not working as hard, allowing you to listen for a longer time.

When you listen with studio monitors you are not tied to your piano or workstation with the umbilical cord of headphones. Sometimes when playing you may have to throw the headphone lead over your shoulder or have it dangle beneath your feet.

With studio monitors all the cables are out of the way of your hands when playing (normally stored neatly behind any piano or gear you may have) and this allows for the glorious freedom of movement.

Besides the aforementioned tethering to a static point that high-quality headphones provide (not counting the Bluetooth variety), monitors can also provide you with a lot more dynamic control over what you hear over headphones.

A good set of studio monitors will allow you to have complete control over all the low to high frequencies and really focus in on what to improve upon.

With that being said, you shouldn’t throw away your headphones just yet. They can still be useful as an extra set of referencing speakers, as well as providing a different view of the audio spectrum and the way you’ve panned a mix.

How Do I Test the Monitors to Know They are Good?

Music Production Studio

Here’s a short 10 step guide to testing a pair of monitors so that you have a better idea of whether they are worth investing in. Doing this in the audio store is something worth-while before departing with your hard-earned cash.

1) Knock knock, who’s there? – tapping your knuckles against the cabinet of the monitors can give you a good idea of what’s inside the box. You should hear a dull thud and no ringing or note. This tells us that the cabinet is well dampened and will not produce a strong resonance. However, the proof is in the pudding and pudding is the sound of the monitor.

2) Listen to expensive monitors – these may be well out of the reach of your budget, but by listening to expensive monitors you can have a target reference for your purchase.

3) Get some rest – fatigue changes your perception of how monitors sound. Make sure you arrive ready to listen with a fresh set of ears (and brain). Listening first thing in the morning or after a power-nap can give you a completely different view on a set of speakers, but will ensure you are 100% switched on.

P.S. don’t drink a pot of coffee before listening either – caffeine has been known to cause temporary threshold shifts that reduce your hearing accuracy.

4) I know that tune! – bring recordings you are intimately familiar with and preferably on a commercially available CD or at least a 24-bit 48kHz recording file (definitely NO MP3s).

Even something as simple as an audiobook or podcast recording can be highly revealing, as we are so familiar with the sound of the human voice.

Make sure the recordings are something you’ve listened to over a variety of devices – headphones, car speakers, home stereo and even laptop speakers to make sure you really know the intricacies of how the mixes behave.

5) Easy now – listen at a comfortable volume, not too loud. Increasing the volume of a set of stereo monitors may make the low-end stand out more and perhaps lend bias to your opinion. Listen out for parts of the recordings you may have not noticed before.

For example, if you’re listening to a piece of orchestral music, good monitors may reveal a low bass drum part or the reverberation of the performance hall, which weren’t evident on inferior monitors with insufficient bass response.

6) Squashed bananas – bring a recording with a wide dynamic range (a lot of classical music contains this). The dynamics should not be compressed and should not be tightly squashed.

7) I like my bass down low – bass should be tight and well defined. It shouldn’t be sloppy or muddy and you should be able to distinguish each individual note.

8) Way up high – high frequencies should be crisp and shimmering. Not piercing nor shrill and annoying.

9) Por que no los dos? – if you are evaluating monitors against each other, never listen to more than two pairs at a time. Bring a notepad and take notes, making a list of pros and cons for each pair as you go.

10) Home Turf Advantage – try to listen to monitors in a room similar to the one you have at home. That means no noisy music stores (although some music stores have an isolated room specifically for this).

Try to include as much of how you would work with what is available to you in the store – a work desk, a mixing console, an audio interface if necessary – these will all have an impact on your perception of the monitors.

If possible try to avoid listening in a room full of demo monitors because the cabinets and drivers from other speakers may resonate and color your hearing. The ideal situation would be an at-home trial or rental where the fee can be reduced from the purchase price.

About the Author – Chris Skipper

Chris Skipper author

Chris Skipper is a British and South African composer, sound designer and music producer. He has written music for countless TV commercials as well as documentaries, short films and online media.

Being based in Manila, Philippines, he spends most of his time trying to escape the studio to get to the beach and failing miserably.

You can find out more about him at cmwskipper.com.


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