A Guide to Choosing Studio Monitors

Why do I need studio monitors?

When producing music, monitoring your mix is far more than just 'hearing' your work. Every producer will tell you how ultimately satisfying it is to be able to hear the fruits of your labour. And, they'll also happily share how deflating it can be when you listen to your proud new production in the car, on your home, on your Hi-Fi, iPod or even in the club only to realise you can't hear that juicy lead half as much as you wanted, the soft vocals are sitting way to low in the mix or that smooth sub-bass is far too dominant or even worse... the whole mix is completely wrong.


Here's where a decent pair of studio monitors come in:

The whole concept of a monitor speaker is to enable you to hear your work 'as it is'.

flat-frequency-response Good monitor speakers will be 'flat'. This means they provide an equal representation of the complete frequency range. Nothing is over compensated and nothing is understated. This 'true' and accurate representation of your mix can be adjusted and corrected to sound good on any set of speakers. And if it doesn't sound good on other speakers, you'll be able to hear why - the sound is honest, so you know what's right and what's wrong. Using speakers that aren't up to the job means your judgement will be thrown. You'll hear things that aren't supposed to be there - like a superficially enhanced bass. You'll also miss things that should be there, like reverb, thus over compensating and losing balance.

So what's wrong with my bedroom Hi-Fi speakers?

Contrary to the 'flat' response of studio monitors, Hi-Fi speakers and home audio systems are tuned to offer a performance that is pleasant to your ears - this often means they follow a frequency response to match the curve of your hearing range. Boosting bass, tweaking the mid-range, adding sparkle to high frequencies and more... all to basically trick your ear and brain into enjoying their sound. You obviously don't want this trickery applied to your clean and neutral productions - you need your work to be represented in it's truest form to create clean mix which can then be mixed and mastered correctly.

What do I need to look for in studio monitors?

Your intentions, budget, space and most importantly, personal preference, will dictate which monitors you choose. And, there are no real rules, just some points that you'll do well to consider when buying your monitors. Best sellers includes KRK active monitors, Yamaha HS series monitors, M-Audio at the more affordable end of the market and for the more pro-end of the spectrum, Focal active monitors.

When choosing monitors, bare these principles in mind:

m-audio-bx5-d2-front You're going to need two! One for the left and one for the right channel, giving you a stereo image. It's impossible to get this with one speaker, so you're gonna need a pair -there's no argument about that! You're not restricted to a pair or a stereo mix though. You can use more for surround sound configurations ie. 5 speakers + a sub in 5.1, 7 speakers + a sub in 7.1 configurations, providing your audio interface facilitates of course. (This is why some speakers are sold individually).

Passive Monitors or Active Monitors?

Passive speakers need an amplifier. Active speakers have an amplifier built-in, therefore, they don't need an amplifier. There's no right or wrong here but with some important considerations, active speakers tend to be the easiest, most convenient and all-round better value option. Yes, they may seem more expensive on face value - as you'd expect, considering the fact they have an amplifier built-in! But, consider the cost of an amplifier of at least equal quality to your passive monitor choice, matching the power ratings correctly and good cabling too, and you're not saving much at all. You'r also potentially adding unnecessary complications to your speaker system. Not to mention signal and sound degradation and the very likely possibility of a poorly matched system.

If the amp doesn't suit the speakers, it can't magically be corrected. And, your sound is only as good as the worst part of your signal chain. If this is you amp, you've got a problem...

With an active speaker, you can be pretty sure the internal amp is perfectly matched to the loudspeaker system, in terms of both power and quality.

You can also benefit from the fact that most speakers, over a certain price-point, benefit from being 'bi-amplified'. This means they have two amps in each speaker... not to show off or to be louder, but to improve efficiency and ultimately sound quality. One amplifier module will be dedicated to the high frequency driver (or tweeter), while the other is dedicated to the woofer (for the mid-range and bass). This means each amp focuses on it's own specific duty, ie. producing bass for the woofer. A speaker will only a single amp module must produce all the power for both the woofer and the tweeter, although not a bad thing overall, it's just not as efficient and ultimately as accurate as a bi-amplified speaker system.

How big is your woofer?

wooferThe size of the woofer relates to the bass capabilities. More factors come in to play, like acoustics, cabinet size, porting etc for the overall bass performance, but it's very safe to assume an 8" speaker will offer more more bass than a 5" speaker. If you want to produce thumping electronic music with a leading bass line, an 8" speaker will more than likely do the best job for you (budget pending of course). If you're recording and mixing delicate acoustic guitar riffs and vocals, a 5" woofer will more than likely suffice. As you'd probably guess, a 6" monitor is good mid-way point between the two. 3" and 4" monitors exist too, these are great space saving options and perfect for 2.1 systems (2 speakers & a sub). Almost throwing this theory on its head, if you go for higher quality speakers, sometimes a smaller woofer can be more accurate and detailed at the low-end - so always check the specs and do bare in mind, there's no hiding from the fact that you're probably going to get what you pay for - extend your budget as far as you can afford and you'll almost certainly achieve the best sound that your budget allows. KRK 10s There's always the option of adding a subwoofer for extended bass and sub-bass (a subwoofer is speaker dedicated to producing nothing but bass). Following the same principles as mentioned above, you'll still need a 'studio' subwoofer, to make sure the bass is accurate and tight. PA subwoofers or home/Hi-Fi subs are designed for different purposes - ie. live music playback and home entertainment, so their sound is going to be far from as accurate as a studio sub.

Don't buy your speakers based on Watts. Volumes, acoustics and SPLs can be a tricky world, so don't dwell on it too much unless you understand it. Just remember:

Watts don't necessarily indicate the volume of a speaker!

Sparing you a physics lesson - a Watt is unit of energy. dB or decibels give a better indication of comparable volume levels as a dB is a measurement of the sound pressure level.

It's a FACT - a 300 watt speaker is not twice as loud as a 150 watt speaker. Yes, it should be louder but some manufacturers rate their speakers as 150 watts MAX. This is very different to 150 watts RMS. Both are different ratings - Max refers to a maximum power, at a specific frequency for a specific period of time. RMS refers to continuous power.... confusing eh!


However - a speaker that is playing at 96dB at a 1m distance IS twice as loud as a speaker playing at 90dB at an equal distance of 1m. An increase of 6dB is an increase means the volume is doubled. See why we'd recommend looking at dB and SPLs, as opposed to watts... there's much less chance of being duped by a false / irrelevant rating.

The restriction of porting

A speaker needs to move air to generate the sound waves those tiny little bones in your ear will detect, it does this by moving forwards and backwards within it speaker cabinet - watch a speaker in operation, you'll see it's very fine movements. You see them more obviously at louder volumes, this is because the cone moves further to create bigger sound waves and higher sound pressure levels. When the speaker moves forwards in this action, air will move forward. Naturally, as the speaker reverses on its axis, the air behind it also moves backwards. This air needs to be able to move freely to prevent unwanted ill effects and muffling. Therefore, you'll see that speakers have a 'port' or hole in them. This 'port' can be on the back (rear-ported) or in close proximity to the woofer itself, on the front of the cabinet (front ported). speaker-portsIf you're planning on having your monitors close to a wall in a project / bedroom studio, a rear-ported speaker isn't ideal. This is because the wall will hinder the air movement and cause muffling, especially at louder volumes. If you're likely to be having a busy working space, ie. tabletop equipment right in front of the speaker (not ideal but always likely in a smaller project studio), it's not ideal to have front ported speakers for exactly the same reason. The real lesson here is try to give your speakers adequate room to perform and the porting becomes less relevant, but if that's not possible - bare this issue in mind.

Plug it in baby?

Connections differ from speaker to speaker. This should never really be a concern though, we can happily provide you with a cable or adapter to connect pretty much anything to anything! But, it's good to know what your getting and what you need. Not many speakers include connecting cables.. not because manufacturer's want to rip you off by making you buy cables on top, it's because they just don't know what each individual customer will be connecting their speakers too. It's not good sense to include a selection of 5 different cables, if each user throws away the 4 they don't need - hence, cables aren't included. Passive speakers may include some speaker cable as this is pretty much generic in concept. Some 'Active monitors' on the budget end of the market, will include a cable to connect the passive secondary monitor to the single active speaker - like the Alesis M1 Active 320 USB or Akai RPM3 - however, you're not likely to get the cables to connect to your mixer, interface etc 'in the box' with any speaker. Keeping it simple, you're likely to be offered at least one of the following industry standard connection types, maybe 2 or if you're lucky, all 3 - like on the KRK Rokit series!
  • The main connection types a DJ will experience are:XLR - referred to as a 'cannon' or 'three pin' by the less technical folk! Jack - sometimes referred to as TRS or 'a big jack' (not like Jack Charlton - it's the larger of two common audio jacks!). Technically it's a 6.3mm / 1/4" jack. RCA - Also referred to as a phono or Phone Jack connection.
cable types Honestly, the best quality of all three is likely to be XLR or Jack (when in balanced mode). These are more secure and offer a potentially balanced signal. We say potentially, because not all jack connections are balanced. When a balanced cable/connection is in operation with a balanced lead, there are three strands of cable within the lead. One to shield the other two conducting cables. One of the conduction cables will be a positive signal, and the other a negative signal - thus creating a circuit. This means a cleaner signal is carried. In unbalanced leads, the signal is passed along the same strands of cable, and it's not likely that this cable is shielded either, unbalaned cables offer more of a chance of interference and signal degredation. In professional audio applications, Balanced cabling is always preferred. Especially when the cables run for longer distances.

In summary, there is certainly going to be a speaker out there to suit your studio monitoring needs. The leading brands almost accommodate pretty much every scenario at every pricepoint within the range of products on offer - it's just a case of finding the one that is right for you. Now you understand a little more regarding purpose, application and design of studio monitors you should be better equipped in making your decision. If not, give us a shout - we'll be able to advise you accordingly and get you set-up with speakers that are right for you. Or alternatively, pop into our Birmingham store and see / hear speakers for yourself!