Studio Monitor Buying Guide
Whether youíre recording and mixing a big project or simply want to record your band at home, a set of studio reference monitors will be a big help. A good set of monitors will let you hear what you record with precise and accurate detail. But what makes a good monitor? And how does a precise, accurate monitor sound? For reference, every time we talk about monitors in this guide, weíre referring to near-field monitors, an increasingly popular and accurate monitoring option for big and small recording studios.
What makes a good monitor?
What makes a monitor good can vary from person to person and application to application. In other words, what works for you might not work for other musicians and vice versa, so finding a monitor that works for you isnít as easy as simply asking your friends and fellow musicians what they use and purchasing the same model. In general, a good monitor is a monitor that you can trust, that your ears know very well, and that you can listen to for extended periods of time without fatigue. The circuitry and speakers should also be very solid; capable of handling your volume and frequency-handling requirements along with peaks, pops, and raw recorded audio without blinking. The last bit is especially important. You canít just grab any old pair of stereo speakers and start mixing because they arenít built to handle the same type of sonic material as a near-field monitor. And with all things in life, you get what you pay for. That doesnít mean you have to get the biggest and best monitors available, but to get the most bang-for-your-buck, carefully think about how youíre going to be using your monitors. Professional-level use warrants professional-level dollars, but hobbyists and recording musicians can stay within their budget and get what they need.
A speaker described as accurate, uncolored, or flat will re-create a signal without significantly increasing or reducing the response of any of the frequencies in the recording. The treble, midrange, and bass will all be represented as they are in the mix. The funny thing is that the first time you hear audio played through a speaker with a truly flat response, it will probably sound wrong because your ears are used to consumer-market stereo speakers. Standard stereo speakers are designed to make whatever audio is played through them sound good but arenít usually accurate in the recording-engineer sense of the word. Standard consumer stereo speakers use tuning tricks to artificially create bigger, punchier bass and more pleasant, friendly highs, among other things. So part of buying monitors is preparing yourself to hear things in a different way. A good monitor will also give you reliable, consistent response no matter the level; whether you turn the volume way up or way down. This allows you to listen critically to how certain elements of the mix sound at different volumes.
By themselves monitors arenít going to transform your mixes into George Martin-level masterpieces. Just like a guitar or keyboard, you have to learn how to use monitors. You do this with a lot of critical and casual listening through your monitors to create a clear sonic picture for your ears. Knowing your monitors and being comfortable with them will pay off when recording or mixing new music because youíll have a built-in reference for how different frequencies and sounds reproduce on them. Youíll also get better at placing instruments exactly where you want them in the stereo sound field and at balancing the complex interplay between the dynamics of competing sounds.
Hard cones and soft domes: What are your monitors made of?
The modern near-field monitor is made of three primary parts: the drivers, the cabinet, and the circuitry. These components are specially designed and optimized to reproduce audio with clarity and accuracy. Manufacturers develop their own components to operate to their own specifications using different materials and designs. You canít really single out any one component as being more important. Every part is designed to work in conjunction with one another. Having a great driver doesnít do much good if the cabinet isnít properly designed for use with that driver.
Woofer & Tweeter Diagram
There are two types of drivers in the typical near-field monitor: woofers and tweeters. If youíre using a (rare) three-way near-field then you will also have a midrange driver. 2.1, 5.1, and 7.1 surround-sound monitor setups will have a separate subwoofer, the .1 in such configurations. In a two-way monitor the woofer handles the low, low mids, and midrange frequencies while the tweeter handles the high mids and high frequencies. With a three-way monitor a midrange driver is added to handle the midrange frequencies. When you add a subwoofer to your monitoring array, the sub takes over a portion of the low frequencies and all of the very low frequencies.
Different monitor manufacturers use different materials to construct their drivers. Silk, mylar, glass, carbon, titanium, and metal alloys are all used to make tweeters. Silk is thought to have an especially smooth, airy, transparent response. Mylar is a synthetic polymer developed in the í50s that mimics silk, but is unaffected by humidity and weather changes. Glass and carbon are similar, very tough materials used for applications where very high power handling is needed and produces a very accurate, extended high-frequency (HF) response. The same is true of metal tweeters made of titanium and other metal alloys, which produce an incredibly precise and extended HF response with the highest power ratings.
Woofers, midrange drivers, and subwoofers are constructed of a cone with a dust cap at the center and a flexible-but-tough surround that allows the cone and voice coil to move. The cone is usually made from treated paper or cloth, polypropylene, aramid fibers, fiberglass, or Kevlar. Paper and cloth are traditional cone materials used for their silk-like performance at a lower cost. Polypropylene, aramid fibers, fiberglass, and Kevlar are all alternative cone-building materials developed in a search to build the ultimate durable, rigid, and lightweight speaker cone. A lighter cone can have a faster transient response which results in more accurate sound.
The studio monitor cabinet strives to get maximum performance from its drivers. Engineers design the cabinet around the driver. It should be as nonresonant as possible so the cabinet doesnít alter or color the output in any way. For that reason, monitor cabinets are usually built from sturdy, stiff materials such as medium-density fiberboard (MDF) or plywood with special internal bracing and specially designed joints. The cabinet design will also often include ports or passive radiators, elements which aid the monitor in low-end reproduction, improving clarity and handling of bass frequencies. Radiused edges on driver openings and monitor corners improve sound clarity and sound imaging by cutting down on sound wave diffraction.
The main thing to know about the circuitry of a studio monitor is whether itís an active or passive monitor. Active monitors come with their own power amplifiers and controls built into the cabinet and are often biamplified. Active monitors have become popular because you don't need a separate power amp and the amp is matched to the speaker by the manufacturer. Biamplification helps each speaker driver (woofer and tweeter) work within its frequency range for optimal performance. Passive monitors require a separate, external power amp, that gives you some flexibility in choosing your components and setting up multispeaker arrays. Passive monitors usually have crossover circuitry for splitting of high and low frequencies. You should check the inputs and outputs offered by the monitor to make sure it will work with your existing equipment. For connections, monitors usually have 1/4", TRS, XLR, RCA, and S/PDIF jacks. Some offer only unbalanced or balanced inputs, and some have both.
Numbers and specifications
Youíll see a lot of numbers when youíre shopping for monitors, usually attached to words like THD, SPL, frequency response, and more familiar terms like watts and driver size. These numbers will usually give you a thumbnail sketch of how the monitor will perform during recording, mixing, and mastering. These specifications are the results of tests conducted by the manufacturer to determine the performance of its products. Unfortunately specifications and the tests that determine specifications have not been standardized, so one manufacturerís 0.01% THD may be anotherís 0.3% THD. The information is still useful to you as a prospective buyer as long as you know what to look for and why. The two specifications that nearly all manufacturers supply and you should pay most attention to are frequency response and THD.
The spec for frequency response should let you know how accurate your monitor will be at various frequency ranges. For good, clean bass response look for monitors that offer flat response down to 55Hz with bonus points awarded to monitors that go past that mark. Most monitors donít have any issue with reproducing high frequency content, but make sure the frequency response extends to at least 18-20kHz. The Ī(numeral)dB qualifier that follows is part of the spec, and indicates the relative flatness of the response at a given output. Look for this number to be lowósuch as Ī1dB-Ī3dBóbecause higher numbers indicate inaccuracy.
The spec for THD (Total Harmonic Distortion) is also an indicator of general accuracy, but in a different way than frequency response. THD lets you know how cleanly a monitor can reproduce whatever audio you feed it. Most of the time the term THD really refers to THD+N, (Total Harmonic Distortion plus Noise) so when you see THD, you can usually include noise in the equation. Every audio circuit adds some noise and distortion, the question is how much. A good, clean audio circuit should be very close to zero in the amount of distortion and noise it adds, i.e. Ė 0.001%. A poorly designed audio circuit will add quite a bit of distortion, in the range of anywhere from 0.3-1%. While you arenít likely to see these types of numbers on a set of near-field reference monitors, you will often see numbers this high and higher on consumer audio speakers and headphones; another reason why you shouldnít use them for recording.
How do I select my monitors?
If you mostly record yourself singing and playing acoustic guitar a medium-size set of desktop monitors will fit you pretty well. If youíre producing hip-hop tracks to freestyle over or club-inspired pop songs, you may want to get a subwoofer-assisted 2.1 system. Producing songs and soundtracks for video games, videos, movies, or television? A 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound system is the way to go. If youíre recording rock bands or working with a wide variety of talent, consider monitors with 8" woofers and plenty of power so your system will always be up to the task.
Buy the best monitors you can afford and then learn to use them really well. It might not be as easy or as glamorous as getting the latest, greatest, biggest, and best set of near-field monitors available, but if they work for you, who cares? Nearly any decent near-field monitor on the market today is going to blow your stereo or computer speakers out of the water, so you canít lose.
How do you learn to use your monitors? Good question. It shows youíre paying attention. Start by listening to your monitors a lot. Not just when youíre recording, but with a selection of your favorite recordings, too, ones that you know really well. As mentioned at the outset, be prepared for your monitors to sound different than stereo speakers. Keep listening, get past the flatness, and with time youíll learn how your monitors react to different sounds. This will help you to understand not only what your monitors are good at but also what theyíre not good at and how you compensate for those shortcomings so your mixes still sound like you bought monitors on a rock-star budget.
Also be forewarned that whatever your monitors are good at (e.g., bass, treble, clarity), your mixes will be bad at. If youíre using a 2.1 system, its abundance of bass output will trick you into believing your mixes have adequate bass, but when you transfer your audio to a smaller, non-2.1 consumer system, the bass will disappear. So be prepared to check your mixes on several systems and mix against your systemís strengths.
One final thing to note about your new monitors. You canít just put them up on a bookshelf behind your recording setup, crank 'em up, and call it good. Near-field monitors are designed to be placed close, generally within 3-5 feet of the listener, without obstacles that might impede the clear sound waves from the drivers. That includes the walls, as reflected sound waves from behind or beside your monitors can color the way you hear. Monitor pads are good for decoupling your monitors from whatever surface you have them sitting on. Youíll also want to set them up so youíre automatically positioned in the sweet spot of your monitors when you sit down to record.
You can find a wide selection of near-field monitors here at Musicianís Friend. We carry active and passive monitors; 2.1, 5.1, and 7.1 monitor systems; and studio subwoofers from brands like TASCAM, Fostex, Alesis, KRK, Tannoy, Roland, Yamaha, M-Audio, E-MU, Behringer, ART, Event, JBL, Dynaudio, Nady, and Mackie.
In the Books and Video section of the Musicianís Friend website youíll find lots of help for getting your home studio up and running. Youíll also find lots of exclusive Hands-On Product Reviews, customer reviews, Tech Tips, and other articles that will help guide you in selecting the right gear.