Studio monitors buyer’s guide

Studio monitors are among the most important pieces of gear in your studio. After all, they are responsible for letting you hear what is going on in your mixes: if you don’t hear your mix properly, how can you make the right mixing decisions? Studio monitors differ from hi-fi speakers in that they aren’t supposed to flatter your mixes, they’re supposed to be revealing, allowing you to make the critical mixing decisions that will improve your songs. In this studio monitors buyer’s guide, we’ll look at some of the things to consider when buying a new set of monitors so you can make sure and get the right monitors for your studio.

Understanding the specifications

One of the main things you’ll be looking for is a flat frequency response, without too much in the way of lumps, bumps and dips. Most monitors will extend quite happily to the top end of your hearing range (and often beyond!) without too much of a problem; the main differences come at the low end. Getting that extended bass response needs bigger woofers and generally costs more money. When comparing monitors by looking at the lowest frequency quoted in the specifications make sure that the manufacturers are using equivalent specifications. Some will quote the frequency at which the response is down by 3 dB, some by 5, it can vary, so it pays to do some reading.

You may also want to pay attention to whether or not the monitor cabinets are ‘ported’, or if they are sealed. Bass ports are often seen in smaller speakers and are tuned to extend the frequency response downward. These can be very effective in increasing the bass response, but you may need to be careful in how they are positioned (away from rear walls if the port is on the rear), and be aware of notes that sound around that frequency. If bass is a problem with ported speakers, sometimes stuffing the ports with a sock can improve matters.

Spend as much as you can afford

This one is usually a no-brainer: if you have £1000 that you want to spend on a microphone preamp, then go ahead and do it. It will get you a great piece of gear that will probably hold its money better than a budget model, and you’ve gone straight to the top of the tree and you won’t lose money trading up the upgrade path. However, with studio monitors, that might not be the best thing to do…

If you drop a ton of cash on some fantastic three-way monitors with incredible low-frequency extension, but you put them in a small room that is nearly a perfect cube, you’ll be so overwhelmed with bass bouncing around the place and interfering with itself that making informed mixing decisions will be impossible. In situations where you have a small room, or where the positioning of the monitors is compromised, you may be better off with smaller monitors that have a more restricted frequency response.

Alesis M1 Active mk2Active or passive?

Another decision you’ll have to make is to decide whether you want active or passive monitors. Basically, active monitors get plugged into an electrical socket and the line-outs of your audio interface, with passive monitors you’ll need a separate amplifier. This is a bit of a generalisation though, as there are differences between active monitors, and powered monitors, based on whether the amplifiers are before or after the crossover, but , thankfully, the clever boffins at the monitor companies are pretty good at knowing what they are doing, so it’s not really something we need to worry about too much…

Active monitors are a lot more straightforward to set up and, while they are a bit more expensive, there are more to choose from and you don’t need to budget for a separate amplifier. Also, as the amplifiers in the monitors have been designed with those speakers in mind, you know that everything is meant to work together for the best results. They may also offer controls to tailor the frequency response to their placement in your room.

Get connected

You will also want to think about what type of connections you need on the back of the monitor. Most offer a selection, but, if your interface supports it, you’ll ideally want to connect your outputs to the monitors via balanced connections. These are offered on 3-pin XLR or ¼” tip-ring-sleeve jack connectors. Unbalanced inputs on the monitor will likely be on coaxial RCA or ¼” tip-sleeve jacks, so make sure that you pick up the right set of cables to go with your new monitors, or you’ll end up with a hefty pair of paperweights!

Subwoofers

If you have a pair of smaller-sized monitors, you might find that you find the bass extension of your speakers lacking. Rather than getting rid of your existing monitors and buying a new pair, you could supplement your setup with a subwoofer. These generally feature crossovers that allow you to connect the subwoofer in-line with your speakers so you don’t need to use additional outputs from your interface.

M-Audio SBX10Matching your subwoofers to your main stereo speakers is an important consideration. Choosing a model from the same manufacturer as your monitors and which has been designed to complement them specifically is a good way to go, but some subwoofers feature an adjustable crossover frequency that can help make the two parts of your system ‘gel’ together properly. As mentioned earlier though, make sure you place your subwoofer carefully and that you don’t overwhelm your room with bass energy! Experiment with the subwoofer position and level (and crossover frequency as well if applicable) to get the best sound in your monitoring position.

Headphones

Don’t underestimate the usefulness of headphones. While they can sometimes be restrictive to wear for very long production sessions, if your budget only extends to basic, entry-level monitors and they are compromised in how they are positioned in your room, which may not have any acoustic treatment, you might find that a good pair of studio headphones, such as the Beyerdynamic DT-880 Pro actually lead to more accurate monitoring and better mixes. You can always add something like the Focusrite VRM box to simulate the sound of good monitors in a nice-sounding control room.


In summary

In a big, well-treated and good-sounding room with a good budget, you can go to town with your monitor purchase, pick up a pair that suit the type of music you want to listen to and that allow you to hear what’s going on inside your mixes. In smaller, untreated rooms, smaller monitors that don’t produce excessive bass might be a better option; you can always supplement your monitors with a good pair of studio headphones.

When all about specifications is said and done, you really can’t beat just going into the store and auditioning a few pairs of monitors side-by-side. Make sure and bring along some tracks with which you are very familiar, maybe even some mixes in progress. When you play back music you know well, your ears can tell you things that the specification sheet can’t.

Always remember that your monitors are just a part of your monitoring chain, which also includes the digital to analogue conversion in your audio interface, your room and, perhaps most importantly, your ears, so don’t overlook some ear training exercises that will help you identify those problem frequencies and sounds in your mix. These days, there is an incredible range of great monitors out there, the trick is taking some time to check a few out with some music you’re comfortable with and choosing a set of monitors that are right for you.

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Fynn Callum

producer, guitarist, engineer & dj
From indie guitarist to deep house producer via Northern Soul dj; mix engineer, producer and gear enthusiast. Jaffa Cake aficionado.

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