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Buying Guide:Studio Monitors Buying Guide

Table of Contents

What makes a good monitor?

Monitor components- What are your monitors made of?




Numbers and specifications

How do I select my monitors?

Studio monitor glossary



Whether you’re 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, we’re 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 isn’t 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 can’t just grab any  old pair of stereo speakers and start mixing because they aren’t 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 doesn’t mean you have to get the biggest  and best monitors available, but to get the most bang-for-your-buck, carefully  think about how you’re 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 aren’t  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 aren’t 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 you’ll have a built-in reference for how different frequencies  and sounds reproduce on them. You’ll 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.


Monitor components- 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 can’t 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 doesn’t do much good if the  cabinet isn’t 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 you’re 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.


5.1 System









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 ’50s 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.


Dome DiagramHorn DiagramWoofer Diagram


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 doesn’t 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  it’s 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", TRSXLR, RCA, and S/PDIF jacks. Some offer only unbalanced or balanced inputs, and some have both.


Numbers and specifications


You’ll see a lot of numbers when you’re 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 manufacturer’s 0.01% THD may  be another’s 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  don’t have any issue with reproducing high frequency content, but make sure the  frequency response extends to at least 18-20kHz. The ±(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 low—such as ±1dB-±3dB—because  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. – 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 aren’t 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 shouldn’t 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 you’re  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 you’re 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 can’t  lose.


How do you learn to use your monitors? Good question. It shows you’re paying  attention. Start by listening to your monitors a lot. Not just when you’re  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 you’ll 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  they’re 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 you’re 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 system’s strengths.


One final thing to note about your new monitors. You can’t 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. You’ll also want to set them up so you’re automatically  positioned in the sweet spot of your  monitors when you sit down to record.






Studio monitor glossary


1/4" jack — Also known as phone plug. Unbalanced connection  using a phone-patching cord connector. The most basic connection in audio.


2.1 — A monitoring setup with two main monitors and a  separate subwoofer for handling bass frequencies.


5.1 surround sound — see surround sound.


7.1 surround sound — see surround sound.


Bass — Refers to the low frequency portion of an audio  signal usually from 20Hz up to about 150Hz. Also generically refers to notes  with a low pitch.


Balanced — An audio circuit with two shielded conductors  running at reverse polarity and equal at ground. Balanced wiring provides  noise-free transfer of audio in areas susceptible to noise, like recording  studios and live sound venues. Requires balanced I/O and balanced cables.


Biamplification or Biamped — The practice of using separate  power amplifiers and a crossover network to drive separate elements in a  loudspeaker cabinet. Often combined with active amplification, where the  amplifier is built into the cabinet of the speaker.


Cabinet — Also cab or speaker cabinet. Cabinet commonly  refers to the enclosure a driver is mounted in. The enclosure serves several  purposes besides simply housing the driver and its circuitry. It prevents  negative phase sound waves from the rear of the driver causing phase  cancellation with the positive phase sound waves from the front of the driver  and also improves the efficiency and frequency response of the drivers.


Decoupling — Or decouple. The process of isolating monitors  from their supporting structure to prevent undesired transmission of sound.  Specially designed pads and stands serve this function.


Diffraction — The bending of a sound wave that occurs when  it is deflected from its path by an object.


Driver — Refers to the raw speaker mounted in the cabinet or  enclosure. It is the active part of the speaker system that actually creates the  soundwaves.


Ear fatigue — Condition which occurs after many hours of  listening and working with audio, usually while mixing. Seems to happen  especially often when monitoring audio at high volumes or when listening to  audio with exaggerated frequencies, e.g. too much treble or midrange.


Flat sound — Also flat response. A speaker or other piece of  audio equipment with flat response won’t naturally boost or cut any frequency  when an audio signal is played through it. Theoretically, a flat input signal  will emerge just as flat as it went in although this is practically impossible  with current monitor technology. The term originates from frequency response  graphs where flat response is represented as a flat line devoid of peaks or  valleys.


Frequency — Refers to specific sounds and certain segments  of audio defined by its pitch, e.g. treble frequencies, midrange frequencies,  bass frequencies, etc. The standard definition for frequency is the number of  times an event occurs within a unit of time. The frequency of sound vibrations  related to their wavelength results in the pitch of the notes we hear in music.  The open low E string on a bass guitar generates a fundamental frequency of  41.5Hz. The high open E string on a standard guitar generates a fundamental  frequency of 1.3kHz.


Frequency range — The range of frequencies a piece of audio  gear can transmit or reproduce. Usually specified as 20Hz-20kHz. When combined  with THD it gives you some idea of the accuracy of the component. The wider the  frequency range, the more frequencies you will hear clearly.


Frequency response — The result of frequency range versus  amplitude. The spec (20Hz-20kHz ±3dB) means that for a given input signal the  listed range of frequencies (20Hz-20khz) will be reproduced within the specified  range of levels (±3dB) compared to the original signal. Any frequencies outside  this range may or may not be within the range of levels. For example: a piece of  equipment with a flat frequency response will give you a more accurate  impression of how your audio really sounds.


Hertz — Abbreviated Hz. Hertz is the unit used to measure  frequencies and one Hertz is equal to one cycle per second, e.g. a 60Hz sine  wave takes one second to complete a full cycle. KiloHertz—abbreviated kHz—is  often used once the cycles per second pass one thousand. The Hertz is named in  honor of Heinrich Hertz, a 19th-century German physicist who was one of the  first scientists to study radio waves.


I/O — Short for input/output. Generally refers to the  connections on audio gear.


Mastering — A process in which the final recording of an  audio performance is prepared and processed for its intended distribution media.  This usually involves using limiting, compression, EQ, normalization, stereo  imaging, and editing to achieve a professional and consistent sound aimed for  modern radio and quality playback equipment.


Midrange — Refers to the middle-frequency portion of an  audio signal usually from 150Hz up to about 2.5kHz. Also generically refers to  notes with a medium pitch.


Midrange driver — The driver in a multidriver speaker  designated to reproduce the midrange frequencies.


Mixing — The process of using a mixer, either hardware or  software, to adjust and balance levels and frequency content of an audio  performance or recorded audio in an effort to pleasingly enhance the audio.


Monitor — Also studio monitor or reference monitor. A  speaker specially designed for high-fidelity playback of audio material for  critical listening during the recording process. Varieties include near-field,  surround, active, and passive. Near-field monitors are designed to be used in  very close proximity to the listener to limit interference from the room  acoustics. Active monitors have built-in power amps that eliminate the need for  an external amplifier. Passive monitors are traditional speakers which require  an external power amplifier.


Near-field monitor — A monitor designed to be placed closer  to you—or more specifically, your ears—than anything that might interfere with  the soundwaves coming from the speaker, such as a wall, guitar stack, rack, etc.  See sweet spot for placement suggestions.


Phase — A measurement in degrees that specifies how far  along in its cycle a sound wave is, with a complete cycle being 360 degrees. If  two waves are out of phase it results in cancellation of parts of both waves.  Two identical waves exactly 180 degrees out of phase will completely cancel each  other out.


RCA — More correctly called a phono plug, this connection  was developed and popularized by Radio Corporation of America (RCA) for use with  their audio equipment. Most often used in stereo pairs.


Reference monitor — Also soffit-mounted monitor. A large,  traditional monitor used in specialized installations with an infinite baffle in  professional music studios. These expensive monitor setups reside eight to 10  feet or more away from the listening position.


S/PDIF — Abbreviation of Sony Philips Digital Interface  Format. Interface for digital audio that uses either optical or coaxial cables  for transmission. S/PDIF is based on the AES/EBU standard and can provide two  channels of 24-bit/96kHz audio in one direction. Only use 70ohm S/PDIF cable to  make a S/PDIF connection.


SPL — Sound Pressure Level. The measurement of the volume,  or amplitude, of a sound wave. SPLs are measured in decibels (dB).


Sound wave — A series of compressions in the air that  transmit sound. Sound waves are represented visually by a wavy, horizontal line  with the upper part of the wave indicating compression and the lower part  indicating rarefaction.


Subwoofer — A driver used to reproduce very low frequencies  and sometimes housed in a separate enclosure from the woofer, midrange driver,  and tweeter.


Surround sound — Multichannel audio system that creates a 3D  sound stage. Developed by Dolby Labs, surround sound typically includes 5.1  channels, meaning a center channel; l/r front channels; l/r rear channels; and a  subwoofer. A second configuration, 7.1 includes two surround speakers at the  sides for a more encompassing audio field.


Sweet spot — The optimal listening position for studio  reference monitors. Provides the listener with the right blend of tonal balance,  stereo separation, detail, and overall sound image. In general, the sweet spot  for a pair of near-field monitors is three to five feet in front of and just in  between the pair, with ears about the same level as the top of the woofer and  bottom of the tweeter. Your head and the two monitors should form an imaginary  equilateral triangle. Some monitors have a wide sweet spot that is easy to find,  while others require more experimentation with placement.


THD — Total Harmonic Distortion. Nearly all electronic  components distort the audio signal that passes through their circuitry to a  greater or lesser degree. The measurement of this distortion is usually  represented as a decimal percentage of the signal; i.e. — <0.03%. The closer  the percentage is to zero the less distortion and the more transparent the  sound. Typically the specification for THD actually refers to THD+N, which is  THD plus Noise.


Transient response — often used to mean slew rate, which is  the ability of the speaker to accurately track fast changes in amplitude, which  results in clear, clean, accurate sound. Since a low slew rate can result in bad  transient response, the terms are sometimes used interchangeably in reference to  speakers. A speaker with a high slew rate has better transient response and  therefore sounds more accurate. Transients are critical bits of high-frequency  sound our ears and brains use to recognize sounds.


Treble — Refers to the high-frequency portion of an audio  signal usually from 3kHz up to about 20kHz. Also generically refers to notes  with a high pitch.


TRS — Stands for Tip, Ring, Sleeve. TRS is a balanced  circuit that uses a phone plug-style connection with three conductors (the tip,  the ring, and the sleeve) instead of just two (the tip and the sleeve).


Tweeter — The high-frequency driver in a multidriver  speaker.


Unbalanced — An audio circuit whose two conductors are  unequal at ground, usually because one conductor operates as a ground. An  unbalanced audio circuit is more susceptible to noise problems than balanced  circuits. Noise can be combatted by keeping cables as short as possible.


Woofer — The low-frequency driver in a multidriver speaker.  Woofers are designed to accurately reproduce low frequencies which requires more  movement of the driver than high frequencies. Woofers used in very low-frequency  applications are called subwoofers.


XLR — Balanced, circular three-pin connector typically used  for microphone and line-level signals. Each pin is a separate channel, but pin 1  is always ground. The connection was developed by Cannon and is sometimes called  a Cannon connector.

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