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Roundup - Choosing and Using Studio Monitors

August 22, 2012
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Speakers are crucial components of your studio—do right by them, and they’ll do right by you


There’s only one piece of studio gear you use every time you work: monitors. Every signal you hear passes through them, so the impact of studio monitors on your recording and mixing is readily apparent. Despite the evolution, and in some cases, revolution, of audio technology, speakers still operate as transducers pushing air (though a manufacturer may employ multiple drivers). Choosing a pair of monitors can be a daunting task, but we’re here to help you make an intelligent decision.
 
 Let’s get started! Most home- and project-based studios employ nearfield monitors—speakers intended for placement atop mixing consoles, desktops, or on stands. There’s no strict rule for distance from the listener, but nearfields are generally engineered to sit roughly three to eight feet from the listening position. Note that if you’re going to use stands, don’t skimp on the quality; furthermore, we suggest placing the monitors atop some sort of isolation platform (e.g., Auralex MoPADs or Primacoustic Recoil Stabilizers—see Figure 1 on page 50) so energy isn’t transferred from the speakers or the stands or desk.

 
Fig. 1. Primacoustic’s Recoil Stabilizer increases speaker focus by minimizing resonant coupling, while providing a stable base that reduces the recoil caused by the forward energy of loudspeaker motion.
Understanding Specs and Their Importance Although specifications can help narrow your choices, they don’t tell you how a monitor sounds—so take them with a grain of salt. But before examining speaker specs, let’s distinguish between active and passive monitors. Active monitors have onboard amplification so you won’t need an external power amp; passive monitors require external amplification.

Neither design is inherently better. If you decide on passive monitors, your choice of power amplifier will have a profound effect on how they sound (and possibly your budget). Power amps are the Rodney Dangerfield of studio gear—they don’t “get no respect” because they don’t seem to do anything particularly impressive. And ideally, they indeed do nothing except perfectly amplify the signal coming from your mixer or DAW, but in reality they can add nonlinearities. Don’t expect to get great results from a pair of $1,000 monitors connected to a $39 power amp.

 
The Mackie HR824 has been a studio standard since the ’90s, but is now updated to the HR824mk2. It’s THX pm3 certified, meaning that these speakers are suitable for anyone seeking THX certification for his or her studio.
mackie.com
Because active monitors have built-in power amps, that choice has been made for you, and the manufacturer has (hopefully) optimized the amp for the speaker. Active monitors may have multiple amplifiers, possibly one for the woofer and another for the tweeter. This is known as biamplification. (Triamplification uses separate amps for low-, mid-, and high-frequency drivers.)

A biamped system places the crossover at line level, before the power amps, as this enables the designer to increase efficiency by allocating power where it’s needed most. Consider a system with a 100-watt amp powering the woofer and a 30-watt amp for the tweeter; this is a reasonable combination because a woofer requires more power to do its job (move a large mass of air) than does a tweeter. Placing the crossover before the power amp means it is never subject to high voltages and heat (thus increasing reliability), which would be the case in a passive speaker where the crossover accepts the power amp’s output. Biamplification also reduces Intermodulation Distortion (IMD), and allows the manufacturer to build in protection techniques to avoid amp and speaker damage if you get overzealous on the volume control. On the other hand, active monitors have no upgrade path; you can’t change to a better power amp once finances allow.

 
The Fostex PM0.4 is a reasonably priced, compact bi-amp speaker but the most striking feature is that it’s available in multiple colors—black, white, red, violet, and yellow. It’s designed with wall mounting in mind, hence the emphasis on visuals as well as sound.
fostex.com
Here are some of the specifications you’ll encounter in your research to find the ultimate monitor speaker.

Frequency Response This is an analysis of frequency versus amplitude (see Figure 2). Don’t confuse this with frequency range, which tells you the lowest and highest frequencies a monitor can reproduce, but doesn’t provide a tolerance. A small monitor may have a frequency range extending down to 30Hz, but the amplitude at that frequency might be –15dB— making that 30Hz spec essentially fictional.

Frequency response with a tolerance (for example, ±3 dB) or graph helps indicate the speaker’s overall accuracy. Frequency response can vary when your listening position changes from on-axis (directly in front of the monitor) to off-axis (when you are listening off to the side). If you need a wide “sweet spot” (perhaps to accommodate many listeners in the control room), then off-axis response becomes more important.

 
Fig. 2. A typical speaker frequency response curve isn’t flat, and rolls off at lower frequencies.
Comparing monitors strictly by frequency response is of limited usefulness because frequency response changes with placement, which is beyond the control of the speaker manufacturer. In theory, the human ear can hear from 20Hz to 20kHz, so we’d like a speaker to cover at least this range, but smaller speakers tend to roll off the bottom end. You can expect a monitor with a 6-inch woofer to bow out around 50Hz.

Maximum SPL This represents the maximum volume level a monitor can achieve, but does not necessarily indicate the conditions under which that volume is achieved. Is the value peak or continuous? What’s the distortion at that level? Some manufacturers may add a distortion component to the spec, such as “108dB SPL @ 1% THD,” which is a bit more helpful.

 
ADAM’s SX1 nearfield monitor delivers the “ADAM sound,” and features ADAM’s X-ART (eXtended Accelerating Ribbon Technology) tweeter, but packs it into a remarkably compact enclosure suitable for smaller studios.
adam-audio.com
Sensitivity This spec is quite meaningful because it describes a passive speaker’s efficiency—the amount of power the speaker requires to achieve a certain volume level. A spec of 92dB SPL at 1 watt/1 meter says that the speaker will produce a sound pressure level of 92dB, measured one meter away with 1-watt input. To increase the volume level 3dB, you’d need to double the power. In our example, we’d need 2 watts to produce 95dB SPL, 4 watts to produce 98dB SPL, 8 watts to produce 101dB SPL, etc. This helps give you an idea of how much power your amplifier needs to be able to produce.

Power handling The amount of power a speaker can handle is measured over time. Power-handling measurement practices can vary, so the more meaningful spec is AES power handling, which is defined as filtered pink noise input for a period of two hours.

 
Event’s 2-way 20/20 monitors (which are still in production) were some of the early entries in affordable, high-quality monitoring. The 2030 updates the concept with three drivers and high- and lowfrequency amps.
eventelectronics.com
Impedance For a passive speaker, this is the average resistance, expressed in ohms, that the speaker presents to the power amp, because a speaker’s resistance varies with frequency. As impedance drops below 4 ohms, some amps may be able to develop more power, but as the impedance gets lower the amp begins to see what looks more and more like a short-circuit—and amps don’t like short-circuits. Most monitors have impedance ranging from 4 to 8 ohms, and most power amplifiers do not have any problems driving this range of impedances. This spec is irrelevant in an active system because the manufacturer has already matched the amp to the speaker(s).

 
The MSP Series from Yamaha has been very popular for studio monitoring, so they downsized both size and price for the MSP3. It too offers accurate sound, but fits in a much smaller space.
yamaha.com
Creature Features There are as many ways to produce a loudspeaker as there are manufacturers producing them. Materials used in the construction of individual drivers include paper, plastic, Kevlar, carbon fiber, aluminum, titanium, beryllium, and unobtainium. (Okay, maybe not the last one.) Woofers are almost always cone-type piston drivers but tweeters can be dome, inverted dome, horn loaded, or ribbon.

There’s no iron-clad rule that any one type is better than another, just as there is no general rule stating that a three-way design is better than a two-way design. In fact, many people believe that for a given price point, a two-way design represents a better approach because the cost is divided among a lesser number of components. Overall sound quality is less about a particular type of design than the care with which that design is implemented, although there are also some features that can help a monitor perform at its best in your room.

 
Although KRK is known for making a variety of speakers, the Rockit line holds down the value end of the spectrum, while retaining many of the “bigger brother” features (front-firing bass port, soft-domed tweeter, and glass aramid composite yellow cone).
krksys.com
High-
and low-frequency trim controls are very important when tuning the monitors to your control room. A speaker intended for use several feet from a rear wall will overemphasize bass if it’s placed against a wall; a low-frequency trim control can help correct this imbalance. If your listening area is very absorptive or reflective, a high-frequency trim can help counteract effects of the environment.

A speaker’s dispersion pattern may be intended for vertical orientation. If you plan to turn the box on its side (horizontal orientation), find out if the pattern will change. It may be possible to remove the tweeter and turn it 90 degrees to maintain the dispersion pattern, even with the monitor turned on its side.

 
PMC’s AML2 5.1 Surround System features compact, 2-way active monitor designs, employing their unique ATL design and Bryston power amplifiers.
pmc-speakers.com
A feature that can be very helpful—especially for those of us who are impatient or lack the tools to perform room analysis—is some form of built-in automatic room correction. Exclusive to active speakers, this function incorporates a signal generator and measurement system within the speaker(s). Place a calibration microphone at the listening position, and put the system into test mode. The speakers emit a reference signal, which the microphone captures. A microprocessor analyzes the result, then automatically applies corrective equalization to the monitors to compensate for room deficiencies—it’s a slick and useful concept that works much better than the old “use a graphic EQ with lots of bands” compensation approach (Figure 3).

 
Dynaudio Professional, part of the TC Electronic
family, has come up with a new approach for the DBM50—a speaker that’s truly designed for desktop monitoring, from its jaunty enclosure angle to an optional remote.
dynaudioprofessional.com
Other less-sexy but equally useful features for active boxes include multiple input connectors (such as XLR balanced and RCA unbalanced), along with a switch that lets you choose an operating level to match your mixer or interface (–10 or +4), thus avoiding unnecessary noise. With passive speakers, look for binding-post inputs with standard spacing so you’re not limited to a particular cable or connector type; avoid spring-clip terminals.

Convenience features include a front-panel power switch and indicator (a surprising number of active models have the power switch on the rear, making it difficult to reach) and volume control. That last one is deceptively important because there may be situations where you’re using an interface that lacks a monitor level control. The ability to link volume control between two active cabinets is a great help— you’ll never have to worry if their levels are mismatched.

 
sE Electronics’ Munro Egg’s distinctive shape is striking, but it’s for a reason: The company claims it virtually eliminates diffraction and resonances. The system also comes with a freestanding control unit.
seelectronics.com
Most active speakers provide some sort of overload and/or thermal protection, generally a good idea. Passive speakers can also include protection, in some cases using an LED to warn you that there’s a problem. Don’t let a lack of protection circuitry in a passive speaker be a deal-breaker because if you really need it, you can always put a fuse inline with the cabinet’s positive input terminal.

Meet My Knuckles A speaker cabinet’s construction can tell you a lot, even if you can’t see inside the box. Solid construction is a must. Rap on the cabinet with your knuckle and listen; you should hear a dull thud and no ringing or note. This indicates that the cabinet is well damped and will not produce a strong resonance.

 
Fig. 3. JBL’s MSC-1 is an accessory device that, after being calibrated with a computer, corrects for acoustical problems at lower frequencies.
The front baffle may be “stepped” to compensate for the fact that the acoustic center of the woofer and tweeter are probably not physically aligned. A driver’s acoustic center is generally at the voice coil; due to the size differential between a typical woofer and tweeter, mounting them on the front baffle puts the voice coils in vertical planes relative to your ears, creating a time delay that can produce phase issues or (in severe cases) comb filtering. A stepped baffle corrects this problem, while a co-ax driver avoids the issue
 
M-Audio’s BX5 D2 is a bi-amped design, with Kevlar woofer and 1" silk-dome tweeter. A unique pinhole power LED makes finding the sweet spot easy.
m-audio.com
completely. Active monitors may employ DSP to correct this problem electronically.

Although you can research specs and features to the point of exhaustion, the bottom line when choosing any monitors is the how they sound. So how do you determine if they sound “good,” and if “good” means “accurate?” Start by calibrating your ears, then listen to the following important characteristics.

• Listen to expensive monitors, even if you can’t afford them, so you have a reference target for your purchase.

 
JBL’s LSR2300 Series is a bonafide system: LSR2328P bi-amp monitor with 8" woofer (LSR2325P with 5" woofer for smaller spaces), LSR2310SP sub for response to 20Hz, and tight integration with the MSC-1 speaker controller/room-mode corrector.
jblpro.com
• Fatigue changes your perception of how a monitor sounds, so be sure your ears (and brain) are fresh.

• You’ll need recordings with which you are intimately familiar. They need to be CD quality; MP3s are not acceptable. A simple recording of the human voice can be very revealing, because we’re all highly familiar with this sound.

 
Sure, they make all kinds of quality speakers—but Equator’s D5 studio monitors, which cost less than $300 per pair, have taken the audio world by storm.
equatoraudio.com
• Listen to commercial releases that you’ve heard over multiple audio systems, and recordings you’ve recently engineered.

• At a comfortable volume level, listen for sounds you haven’t noticed. For example, good monitors may reveal an orchestral bass drum sound you never heard before because inferior monitors didn’t have sufficient bass response.

• Bass should be tight and well defined (not sloppy or muddy), and you should be able to distinguish the pitch of each bass note.

• High-frequency sounds should be crisp, but not piercing or shrill.

• If the speaker has a grille, listen with and without the grille, observing whether or not the sound changes.

 
Focal’s SM9, winner of a 2012 MIPA award, offers a unique take on speakers: It can serve as either a three-way or two-way monitor, thus allowing for different perspectives on the same mix.
focal.com
• Recordings with wide dynamic range should be presented as such; dynamics should not be compressed.

• If you plan to evaluate many different models, compare no more than two pairs at a time, and take notes.

• Try to evaluate speakers in a room similar to your control room environment (that means no noisy music stores), including a work desk or mixing console if necessary—both of which have a huge impact on the sound of monitors.

 
The Truth series from Behringer has
been updated, with a wider-than-usual
“sweet spot.” The B3030A shown here
includes a ribbon tweeter, woofer with
Kevlar cone, and limiter for low- and
high-frequency overload protection.
behringer.com
• If possible, avoid listening in a room full of demo speakers because the drivers and boxes from the unused speakers can resonate at various frequencies, coloring the sound of your audition. The ideal situation would be a vendor allowing you an in-studio trial or a rental where the fee applies to the purchase price.

• If possible, do a mix on the speakers and find out if that mix translates well to other systems. If an in-studio trial won’t fly, try to find a friend who has the monitors you are interested in purchasing, and spend a few hours listening to them.

There’s one final, important caution: Don’t be seduced by hyped highs and lows, because they’ll wear you down over the course of a long workday. You want a speaker to be honest, not flattering. It’s more important to know exactly what you’re tracking than it is for the monitors to make you feel like you’re listening through rose-colored earmuffs.

Steve La Cerra is an independent audio engineer based in New York. In addition to being an Electronic Musician contributor, he mixes front-of-house for Blue Öyster Cult and teaches audio at Mercy College White Plains campus.

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