When it comes to shopping for the best studio monitor speakers, you need to make a choice that results in speakers that offer an uncolored and accurate representation of your musical creativity. Whether you’re mastering audio, mixing, or editing, a top notch pair of monitors is vital to ensure that your track will sound consistent across a wide selection of TVs, audio systems, headphones, or any other types of listening systems. However, it is important to keep in mind that there are more considerations than just the sound reproduction in regards to choosing great studio monitors. Below is a guide to assist you in finding options that best suit your personal studio space!
Active vs. Passive Monitors
While there may be an extensive array of options available when it comes to active studio monitors, you should also know that professionals in the recording industry all grew up playing back their music with passive monitors. While each type has its own set of benefits and uses, it is recommended that you are aware of and understand these differences.
Passive monitors are described as modular in their nature. This means you will need to match up your speakers to the correct crossover and amplifier. When it comes to the active monitors all of this is already built-in, providing you with a number of advantages over their passive siblings. One of these benefits, for example, is that you won't have to handle additional rack gear. In addition, you can sleep easy knowing that the internal amplifier has been matched specifically to these speakers, resulting in superior sonic performance.
While you may be able to create a passive monitoring system that is world-class in quality, many of today’s professional studios and artists across the globe prefer the active based systems. Unless you really have specific reasons as to why you prefer the passive systems, you will probably find that you’ll appreciate the performance and convenience aspects you can achieve from one of the active based studio monitor systems.
Power - The Amount of Watts That You'll Need
When it comes to studio monitor systems, the feature associated with power handling for the system will have a large impact relating to the sound produced and and affect more than just the volume. In fact, it will also determine the dynamic range and the amount of headroom that you will have before the signals peak. A higher wattage translates into being able to hear more transient details. In addition, you will also find it an easier task to make more precise adjustments to the bass and treble levels in your music.
To put it in another way, when you listen to one of your tracks on 2 different monitoring systems that have different wattages but the same "average" volume level, you will find that the system with the higher wattage allows for more headroom. Most people are not aware that the music peaks, such as kick drums and snare hits, can require up to ten times more power when compared to average type of music program material. For example, when the volume level given may demand a 20 watts average, program peaks may require up to 200 watts.
If you happen to own an amp that delivers 70 watts, you will still be off by 130 watts of what you really need. This can result in significant distortion along with possible clipping at the stage of the musical peaks. While it is not always necessary to obtain the highest power ratings, it is important that you are aware that a higher wattage is able to produce more dynamic range and definition.
Single-Amp, Bi-Amp, and Tri-Amp
The way in which the signal is divided in order to power your drivers in studio monitors will determine whether it is either a single, bi or tri-amp configuration. Many of the studio monitors on the market today feature 2 speakers which feature tweeters for the higher frequencies and woofers for the midrange and lower frequencies. In some cases, a 3rd speaker is added which means that the lower frequencies get directed onto the woofer, while mid-frequencies will be directed to the midrange speaker.
In the single-amp configurations, the crossover network will divide output of the amplifier that will send appropriate frequencies onto each speaker. It also sends lower frequencies to the woofer and the higher frequencies onto the tweeter. In the bi-amp configurations, your crossover network will precede 2 separate amplifiers which serve the purpose of powering the low and high frequency drivers. The studio monitors that are able to divide signals 3 ways in order to feed the amplifiers that drive low, mid and high frequency speaker in an individual manner is known as the tri-amp configuration.
Typically speaking, tri-amp and bi-amp configurations have more accurate or flatter frequency responses and greater definition. When each of the speakers is powered individually as opposed to all from the single amp, each of the drivers will have the ability to reproduce dedicated frequency ranges in a much more precise way. When making comparisons on the single-amped to the tri or bi-amped monitors that may be similar in their speaker sizes, tri and bi-amp monitors typically sound more defined and clear.
The Driver Types and Why They Are Important
You will discover that the construction material used to make speakers is extensive. Some brands include paper, onto Kelvar onto aluminum and more. The manufacturers are always in the process of developing new innovations for different price points. But when you really think about it, are you really concerned about what they are made out of?
Well the materials actually play a large role in the actual sound of the speakers, but not many people will make a buying decision on the type of materials that were used in the construction processes. However, while the materials have a significant impact on the actual sound, it is easy to become confused when you start to focus on the materials opposed to the application-specific advantages.
Ported or Closed-Cabinet Considerations
You may find that most of the smaller type studio monitors, as well as a few of the larger types, feature ported cabinets which assist in extending frequency responses lower to achieve more bass. This may seem beneficial, but sonic accuracy in ported cabinets is not always as precise when compared to the closed cabinets. This particular behavior is increased if the ports happen to be situated at the back part of your speakers and when the speaker is positioned too closely to the wall. If you have limited space and only have the option of positioning the speakers close to corners or walls, it is wise to choose a closed or front-ported design to achieve monitoring that is more accurate.
Room Correction, EQ Along With Other Features
Many of the studio monitors will feature some EQ type which is built-in and assists you in the calibration of levels for the room you use them in. Some feature digital processing which is able to optimize their performances dedicated to the acoustic space. These may be features that are helpful, but it is important to understand that it is impossible to cheat physics. Room correction DSP and EQ is able to assist in a bad-sounding room as well as making a room with good acoustics sound fantastic.
Do You Need a Subwoofer?
Just kidding. It’s not always required. The need for a subwoofer is entirely dependent on what you plan to do in association to the audio. If you happen to be mixing sound for the purpose of motion pictures or TV then multi-speaker monitoring setups with the addition of a subwoofer should be highly considered. However, if you are mixing a band's demo tracks which you record in a room such as your basement, you only require a stereo pair of the studio monitors. If your audio is likely to be played through a dance club powerful system or home theater system, a subwoofer is important in order to hear what goes on at the lowest of the bass octaves. If you happen to be producing music that people are going to be bumping in their cars or through their phone, these mixes will in most cases not benefit much from extended ranges that the subwoofer usually add to the monitoring system.
Another important consideration would have to be your room size. Without becoming too technical, a smaller room is not big enough to allow the bass frequencies to develop fully. Placing a subwoofer into a smaller room may put you at risk for a number of sonic inaccuracies. You will probably notice dips and peaks throughout your room, and a few of the bass notes that sound solid while others sound indistinct or clouded. The overall sound in your studio will typically be unbalanced. In addition, you may also need to be careful about introducing excess low-frequency energy in the room and disturbing your perceptions on the amount of low-end which is needed for the track. The acoustic treatments like bass traps can greatly decrease these problems, but the actual room size will always prove to be a limiting aspect in your drive to achieve sonic accuracy.
Isolation and Placement
There are a couple of gray areas when it comes to placement and isolation. For example, try placing the studio monitors in a way that they form a triangle that is equilateral with your head when you are sitting down. To put it another way, make sure the speakers are as far from you as they are positioned from one another. This technique results in more accurate frequency responses along with a clearer stereo image. If you plan to develop a multichannel based surround sound system, it can become more complicated.
Using speaker stands will increase the height of the sound output and can supply improved sound from the monitors when compared to positioning them on the mixing console or a desk. Sound reflects off the console or desk and will only reach your ears a bit after the actual direct sound. This can result in subtle comb-filtering which decreases the accuracy of the monitoring.
Any of the acoustically hard areas between the monitors and you will need to be treated using sound absorbing materials. In addition, the speakers can transmit a bit of their energy into surfaces they have been positioned on which also can translate into further sonic distortions when not isolated. The best way to avoid these issues is to position the studio monitors onto mounts along with isolation pads.
Where to Go From Here?
This guide has covered the basic requirements when you are looking to invest in studio monitor speakers. Much of the research that you conduct from here is determined significantly by the work type you conduct inside your studio. However, here are a few important points to consider:
Make sure you choose speakers that suit the size of the room. If you mix in a limited space, you can achieve much better results with the smaller monitors.
Keep in mind that speaking technically, your studio monitors do not play the role of attempting to sound "great". They rather perform the role of sounding as precise and accurate as possible. The best studio monitor set needs to reveal the finest details in your mixes, whether they are good or bad, while at the same time maintaining a balance that is accurate across the complete frequency range.
Also understand that it will be just about impossible to know how the studio monitors are going to perform or sound inside your studio. Even after you have invested much of your time in regards to auditioning sets in another person's studio or testing out one in a store, the actual acoustics of the room you intend to use will play a significant role in what you will hear when you produce a song. You may be able to make a note of specific characteristics, but avoid thinking they will sound the same.
If you are very serious about the studio monitors you choose, you need to be just as serious when it comes to controlling acoustics in the room. If you are just a beginner, it is highly advisable to set aside some of the budget for absorbent yet basic acoustic treatment to minimize unwanted noise. This means you are able to hear more from the speakers and far less from reflections of the room.
Check out some of our guides about studio monitors!
Best Under $200 - If you’re in the market for a quality studio monitor but you’ve only got two Benjamins to spend, this is the guide for you! At this price point, there are so many quality brands such as KRK, Behringer, and PreSonus. With our guide, we’ll illustrate the differences between these products, including power output and compatible inputs. We list out the best offerings, of both the active and passive variety, on the market today that will be able to handle all of your most demanding recording needs and provide you with an informed buying decision! These speakers are sure to give you an excellent and accurate sound during your production sessions.