Master Class: Selecting Your Speakers

Your monitors affect everything in your studio. Learn how to pick out the perfect pair
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Buying a new set of studio monitors is a little bit like getting married. You’re with them every day, you have to listen to them constantly, and you share a small space together. If they don’t tell the truth, you’ll find out sooner or later. Your speaker choice is not quite as permanent as your choice of a life partner, but it does make sense to choose wisely, because your monitors affect every audio decision you make, every day.

GO BIG OR KEEP IT SMALL?

We’d all love to have the biggest, most expensive monitors money can buy, but just because you can afford large speakers, doesn’t mean you should buy them. You have two important considerations regarding speaker size: First, most home studios revolve around a small room such as a spare bedroom or den. Speakers with 6-or 8-inch woofers will easily fill such rooms with plenty of sound. Coupled with the fact that you’ll likely be listening in the “near field” (close up), there’s less need for a large box. Big speakers playing in a small room more easily excite standing waves, which is something we want to avoid. Many manufacturers offer companion subwoofers for their small monitors that can be added later if you feel the need.

The second big issue you’ll have in a home studio is isolation. Most small speakers can reach levels that are loud enough to annoy your neighbors, so spending five grand on a three-way monitor with a 15-inch woofer may not be such a great idea. If you’re lucky enough to have a large and/or well-isolated room that will not spill sound through the walls into your neighbor’s bedroom, then you can think bigger and louder. Appropriate speaker size also relates to the type of music you create. If you are doing a lot of hip-hop you may need a larger speaker to pump out bass and kick drum notes, but remember—your neighbors may be able to hear them, too.

Consider your monitor’s potential location: If you are forced to place your speakers within a foot to 18 inches from the front wall, a cabinet with a port on the rear panel may be a bad choice. That port can blow low-frequency energy at the wall, which can reflect it back to you out of phase. Do some research to determine the suggested placement for a rear-ported monitor. All things being equal (and they never are), ported cabinets tend to be more efficient and produce more low end than sealed boxes. However there’s a valid argument for sealed boxes producing tighter, more accurate response. I’d consider neither design inherently superior; it’s more about the execution.

PASSIVE VS. ACTIVE

Active speakers contain power amplifiers and crossovers matched to the drivers, meaning that the entire package behaves more like a coherent system. You won’t need to worry about choosing an amplifier, though some people like the ability to mix and match amps with speakers. Active monitors are often “bi-amped” using dedicated amplifiers for the LF and HF drivers, which is generally a more efficient approach to amplification. Most active speakers include some sort of overload protection so you run less risk of damaging the speakers. However, if you already own a high-quality power amp, then passive speakers might be the way to go. You’ll find that a lot of speakers are available only in powered versions, in which case you may not have a choice.

THE NUMBERS

Some speaker specs are more meaningful than others. Frequency response is meaningful only if there’s a variance associated with it, such as, “30 Hz to 20 kHz ± 3 dB.” Absence of a tolerance spec tells you that a speaker is capable of reaching certain frequency extremes, but doesn’t tell you how loud or low in level those extremes may be in relation to the overall response. That said, the response chart of a speaker really doesn’t tell you how it sounds.

The sensitivity of a passive monitor provides an idea of how much power you need. For example, a sensitivity spec of “88 dB SPL @ 1W/1m” means “this speaker will produce a sound level of 88 dB with one watt of power, measured one meter away.” For each additional 3 dB, double the power requirement (e.g. for this particular speaker, 91 dB will require 2 watts, 94 dB will require 4 watts). If you prefer to listen at low levels, you won’t need a lot of power, but I don’t feel there’s such a thing as too much power. Look for an amp that provides 50 to 100 watts per channel; better to have the headroom.

Powered monitors usually state the maximum SPL. Look for long-term SPLs of at least 100 dB, preferably 105 dB—not because you plan to listen at 100 dB all day (please don’t, you’ll damage your hearing!) but because you need to know you or your clients can crank it up once in a while.

BELLS AND WHISTLES

Active monitors in particular often include a variety of “trim” controls that run the gamut from a simple +4/-10 input sensitivity switch to a plethora of DSP-frequency contour controls. You will not find an input level switch on a passive speaker (but you may find a trim control for the tweeter). A switch or variable input control is very useful for matching the output of your mixer or interface to the speakers. Active monitor input connectors are typically XLR, RCA, and TRS/TS ¼-inch. RCA is the least desirable of the bunch because it’s not a reliable connector, especially if the cables frequently get disconnected. XLR and TRS are robust connectors that can carry a balanced signal that’s less susceptible to interference from cell phones. Passive monitors usually employ some sort of binding post connection to the speaker wire.

Other controls may be provided for trimming the low, high, or mid frequencies. Look for controls that go up and down (i.e. -3/0/+3 dB). These will be more useful in a wider variety of circumstances, than controls that allow only cut. A bit of low cut can help if a speaker must be placed close to a wall or corner, while a HF boost comes in handy when walls are covered with a lot of porous absorbent materials. Keep in mind that these are trim controls intended for subtle contouring, and not for completely changing the character of the monitor.

Don’t underestimate the usefulness of a power indicator on the front panel. It’s really annoying to have to get up and look ’round the back just to see if the power is on. Some monitors have Auto-Off or Standby features for energy-saving purposes.

LISTEN CAREFULLY

Listen to as many speakers as possible at various price points even if you can’t afford them. Auditioning premium speakers gives you a benchmark against which to judge less-expensive monitors. I’ll never forget the impression of hearing great monitors for the first time; they were priced way out of my league, but what an ear-opener! I played familiar recordings and heard things I never knew existed. If possible, audition the monitors in your listening room.

Listen to a variety of material but make sure it’s full-bandwidth and not a compressed data format. MP3, AAC, and other “lossless compression” schemes need not apply. You should be playing WAV files, or plug in a CD player. The audition should include material you’ve worked on as well as commercial releases. Beware of commercial projects that have had the life compressed out of them in the name of loudness. Such recordings often have unacceptable levels of distortion and you won’t know whether distortion is coming from the recording or the speakers. A recording of your own voice can be incredibly revealing because it’s a familiar sound. Listen to recordings of real acoustic instruments (not samples) such as piano, acoustic guitar, and drums. A dance tune with synth bass can give you an indication of how the monitors handle the low end.

Things to listen for: Smooth response. Do any areas of the frequency range stick out or sound recessed? Is the kick drum full or does it sound thin? Does the low end distort when you turn up the volume? Are the cymbals smooth or bright and “sizzly?” Do the speakers track dynamics, getting louder and softer along with the program material? Do they provide a sense of impact on louder passages? If listening to a pair of monitors makes you fatigued after 20 or 30 minutes, how will you feel after listening to them over an eight-hour day? Can you hear subtle details such as reverb and echo tails, the thump of the sustain pedal on a piano, or the squeak of a kick drum or hi-hat pedal? If there’s a hum, a buzz, a click, or pop while I’m recording, I need to know. I can handle the truth. Create some rough mixes on the speakers and listen to them on other systems to get an idea of how accurate a picture they paint while you’re working.

What happens when you vary the volume? Do you lose low end when you turn it down? Do parts of the frequency spectrum become emphasized or hidden? A good monitor will sound consistent regardless of volume level. Do the monitors “throw” a decent stereo image? When you add reverb to a sound does the sense of depth increase? These are the things to notice, and the more you listen, the more educated your ear will become.

Many of our studio toys are great fun, but good monitors will change your life. You’ll be able to work longer, smarter and more efficiently, often with better results.

MONITOR STANDS

Unless you are living at the top of the studio food chain and your speakers will be soffit-mounted, you’ll need speaker stands. Fixed-height stands tend to be more stable than adjustable stands, so get an idea of stand height before you buy them. Have a seat in your favorite work chair, get comfortable behind your desk, and have someone measure the distance between your ear and the floor. That’s not the height of the speaker stand you’ll need. Ideally the tweeter lives at ear height, so that you’re working in the sweet spot. Take into consideration support platforms that might be placed under the speakers such as Auralex MoPADs or Primacoustic Recoil Stabilizer. Your ears don’t need to be precisely the same height as the tweeters but you want to be within their dispersion pattern.

Stands with hollow posts that can be filled tend to be more stable and less resonant. Typical filler materials include gravel or pebbles, sand (too messy for my taste), lead shot, and kitty litter. Make sure that the ends of the support post(s) are gasketed so that the filling doesn’t leak out. If you’re really hurting for cash you can make stands using PVC pipe from a plumbing supply by cutting the pipe to the desired length and capping each end with a piece of plywood. Don’t forget to fill the tube before you seal it.

ROOM CORRECTION

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Some active monitors incorporate onboard analysis and DSP that automatically tailor their response to your room—the basic idea is to place a microphone at the listening spot and switch the speakers into a “calibration” or “analysis” mode. The speakers will play a test signal such as a noise burst, a sweep tone, or simply pink noise. The microphone (which is designed for the purpose and has a response known to the manufacturer) receives the signal and sends it to a processor inside the speakers. The processor analyzes the signal for frequency (and sometimes phase) response, then creates a compensation curve that is applied to the monitors to flatten the response. The results of such DSP are usually favorable, helping improve the monitors’ accuracy in your room. If you like this idea, there are monitor controllers and software that accomplish the same thing.

CABLE CONSIDERATIONS

Banana connectorsCanare 4S6 Star Quad If you decide to go for passive speakers, you’ll need cables to connect them to a power amp. Most passive speakers use binding posts that accept bare wire, spades, or banana connectors. Banana connectors are a poor interface for speaker connections. I promise you that they will lose their resiliency and will ultimately not hold a connection unless they employ some sort of locking mechanism. A spade lug is a more reliable connector. Stay away from spring-loaded speaker clips. They will also eventually lose their ability to hold the wire.

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You don’t have to drop $700 on speaker cables, but you shouldn’t cheap out either. I won’t open the can of snake oil that is “speaker cable at 50 bucks a foot,” but let’s not use 24-gauge zip cord either. Go for a minimum cable size of 16 gauge; 14-gauge would be even better. Canare makes excellent speaker cable (4S6 Star Quad) that sells for around 35 cents a foot. If you’re spending a grand on speakers and another seven bills on a power amp, you can afford to buy 20 feet of decent cable and some gold connectors for the ends.