Roundup - Choosing and Using Studio Monitors
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.
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.
|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.
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.
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
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
|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.
Here are some of the specifications you’ll
encounter in your research to find the ultimate
• 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
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
|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.
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.
For a passive speaker, this is
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).
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.
|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.
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
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.
|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).
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.
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
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.
Other less-sexy but equally useful features
for active boxes include multiple input
(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
|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.
Most active speakers provide some sort of
overload and/or thermal protection
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.
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.
• 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.|
• 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.|
• 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.
• 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
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