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Studio Monitor Buyer’s Guide: How to Choose the Right Speakers

June 16, 2019
Learn what makes a good studio monitor, how studio monitors work, and how to choose the right studio monitors.

A question I get asked a lot is, “Which studio monitors should I buy?” While this is a relatively simple question, the answer isn’t so straightforward. There are factors like speaker specs, features, and budget that need to be taken into consideration. In this studio monitor buyer’s guide, I’m going to provide you with all the information you need to choose the right speakers for your music studio.

What Makes a Good Studio Monitor?

A good studio monitor will provide minimal distortion, exceptional stereo imaging, a wide frequency response, neutral sound coloration, and a high volume level even with a small cabinet. Genelec is one of the more popular high-end studio monitor manufacturers, and they describe how the Genelec 8000 Series speakers can achieve these desirable qualities via their design.

How Speakers Work

To understand some of the concepts we’ll be covering, it’s crucial to have a basic understanding of how speakers work. On a fundamental level, you probably understand that when you send an audio signal to your speakers, they generate sound waves. Let’s look deeper into this by investigating what happens inside a speaker’s cabinet.

An image of two empty speaker cabinets.
Two empty speaker cabinets. Image courtesy of Indiamart.

Drivers, Amplifiers, and Crossovers

The round components on the front of a speaker that vibrate are called drivers; they are electroacoustic transducers, which means that they convert electrical audio signal into sound. Most drivers only produce a portion of the audible frequency range, so multiple drivers are installed within the cabinet of a speaker to deliver a broader frequency response.

An image of an assortment of different drivers.
An assortment of different drivers. Image courtesy of TB Speaker.

Drivers are powered by audio amplifiers. An amplifier increases low-power electronic audio signals to a level that is high enough to drive loudspeakers or headphones. Studio monitors are typically either bi-amped or tri-amped, which is the practice of using two or three audio amplifiers to amplify different audio frequency ranges. When an audio signal enters a speaker, its split into different frequency ranges using a component called a crossover. The split signals are then each sent to their own respective driver.

An image of a bi-amped KRK ROKIT 8 G4 8" studio monitor and a tri-amped KRK ROKIT 10-3 G4 10" studio monitor.
A bi-amped KRK ROKIT 8 G4 8" studio monitor (left) and a tri-amped KRK ROKIT 10-3 G4 10" studio monitor (right).

A bi-amped speaker may contain a woofer (low range driver) and tweeter (high range driver). A tri-amped speaker may include a woofer, midrange driver, and tweeter. There are also subwoofers that can be integrated into your speaker setup separately. While specific frequency ranges vary, the low to high-frequency range order goes subwoofer, woofer, midrange, tweeter; all of which are different types of drivers.

The broadband audio signal entering a speaker is split into different frequency ranges using either an active or passive crossover. An active crossover speaker has a power source built into it that amplifies the level of a signal once it has run through the speaker's crossover(s). A passive crossover speaker requires the use of an external power source to boost the level of a signal before it gets run through the speaker's crossover(s).

An image of an active system and a passive system.
Image courtesy of Austin Acoustic.

Passive speakers offer flexibility by allowing you to mix and match components. You can modify the amplifier, source, digital-to-analogue converter (DAC), speaker cables, and interconnects. The benefit of purchasing an active speaker is that all this component pairing has been done for you by the studio monitor manufacturer. Since the amplifier is built in to active speakers, they tend to be heavier and more expensive than passive speakers.

Many studio monitors you come across will be active, but passive studio monitors do exist. If you're stuck choosing between an active and passive version of the same studio monitor, try both of them to see which one allows you to produce better results. The best option is the one that allows you to create mixes that consistently translate well to various playback systems.

Front-Ported, Rear-Ported, and Sealed Cabinets

All of the components of a speaker are housed in what is known as a speaker cabinet, or enclosure; this the part of the speaker made of wood, aluminum, plastic, etc. that you can touch and hold. Speakers use either ported or sealed/closed cabinets. Ported speakers use a hole cut into the cabinet and a section of tubing to allow sound from the rear side of the speaker’s diaphragm (cone) to enhance the reproduction of low-end frequencies.

An image of a sealed cabinet and a ported cabinet.
Image courtesy of Dummies.

A poorly designed port can result in “chuffing,” which is noisy turbulence created by air leaving the port at different speeds. Chuffing can add to the noise floor and distort your perception of low-end frequency content. By designing a capable port, speaker companies can reduce chuffing and increase the low-end response of their speakers.

An image of a poorly designed port hole.
A poorly designed port hole. Image courtesy of Kali Audio.

Some studio monitors are front-ported, while others are rear-ported. Typically, you want to avoid putting rear-ported speakers near walls because it will change the frequency response of the speaker by boosting bass 3 to 6 dB; this happens when the speaker couples with a large surface like a wall.

An image of an effectively designed port hole.
An effectively designed port hole. Image courtesy of Kali Audio.

If you’re working in a small room, you may have no choice but to put your speakers up against a wall. To avoid placing your listening position at a room mode’s node or anti-node, pushing your speakers against the wall may be the best solution. If this is the case, you'll probably want to opt for front-ported speakers to avoid changing their bass response.

Nearfield vs. Midfield Studio Monitors

Studio monitors are usually classified as either nearfield or midfield. Near-field monitors are more suited for small studios, whereas midfield monitors are more suited for large studios. In his article titled “Nearfield vs. Midfield Monitors: Which is Right for You?” Phil O’Keefe of Harmony Central states that:

“Nearfield monitoring is a good choice for those working in smaller rooms, or rooms with more challenging acoustics. While they won't completely eliminate the effect of room acoustics on what you hear they will help minimize related issues, especially if you keep your playback levels reasonable. Where they often struggle is to provide higher volume levels at greater distances, or a wider "sweet spot" that will support more than one listener at a time. For that, we need to turn to midfield monitors.

With their larger drivers and more powerful amplifiers, midfield monitors can fill larger rooms with high-quality sound, and be positioned further away from the listeners without an apparent loss of bass or detail. They provide a larger monitoring sweet spot, more volume, and a generally "bigger" sound. If you have a larger room and work with other people a lot, and if you need higher volume levels and better bass extension, then midfield monitors are worth considering. However, be aware that they are more likely to excite the room "modes" (acoustical cancellations and reinforcement at various bass frequencies related to the room's dimensions), and that can lead to inaccuracies. If you're going to use larger, louder monitors and position them further away from you, good room design and acoustical treatment become more important than ever.”

If I mention a bi-amped, front-ported, nearfield active studio monitor, you should now have some idea of what I’m talking about. Moving on, we’ll be looking at how you can make an educated buying decision when shopping around for studio monitors.

Choosing a Studio Monitor Size

There are three primary differences between small studio monitors and large studio monitors. In general, larger speakers are going to provide you with more dynamic range and less distortion, a further listening distance, and deeper bass response.

Dynamic Range and Distortion

Each driver in a speaker is powered by a certain amount of wattage. More wattage will produce more dynamic range and help avoid distortion. Dynamic speakers produce sound that is typically described as clear and clean; it’s easy to distinguish between different track elements and focus on small details in your mix. If the drivers in your speaker have low wattage, their diaphragm won’t push and pull as far as it should; this results in dynamic range compression and distortion.

Larger speakers tend to have amps powered by more wattage, but small speakers with high wattage values can produce sound waves with high dynamic range and low-level distortion as well. By looking at the spec sheet provided by manufacturers, you can get a sense of how dynamic and low in distortion speakers are; higher wattage values are an indication of the presence of these desirable qualities.

Listening Distance

Listening distance is generally defined as the distance at which your speakers can produce a continuous 83-85 dB sound wave. Larger speakers tend to have a further listening distance than small speakers, making them more suitable for large rooms; they can be placed further away from the listening position.

Frequency Response

One of the most significant issues you’ll run into with small speakers is a lack of bass; their cones may not be large enough to move the amount of air required to reproduce bass frequencies accurately. Frequency response is specific to the particular monitors you’re using, so simply stating that all small speakers don’t produce sufficient bass would be inaccurate.

You may have heard something along the lines of “speakers with less bass are better for small rooms because they’re less likely to excite room modes.” While the fact that they’re less likely to excite room modes is true, the glaring issue they present is that you won’t be able to hear sub frequency content. Plenty of 5” and 8” nearfield monitors don’t provide an adequate bass response. In fact, most lack an entire octave of potential sub-bass content.

Do you opt for a complete lack of bass to avoid the problems associated with room modes in an untreated studio, or go for speakers with sufficient bass response that excite room modes? Room modes can be dealt with using acoustic treatment and smart speaker placement, so I recommend choosing the second option.

Integrating a Subwoofer

The frequency response of your 5” or 8” monitors is probably going to bottom out somewhere around 35-45 Hz, which means that they’re going to benefit from the integration of a subwoofer. Some people think that a subwoofer is optional, but it’s actually mandatory in most cases if you want to be able to audition content in the 20-40 Hz range accurately.

Improperly integrating a subwoofer with your main monitors can cause more issues than it cures, which is why I wrote “How to Set Up a Studio Subwoofer.” A subwoofer shouldn’t draw attention to itself. Instead, it should make your main monitors appear to have an augmented bass response. If you properly integrate a subwoofer with your monitors, bass response is hopefully no longer an issue, and you can make your purchasing decisions based on other factors such as dynamic range, distortion level, and listening distance.

As a side note, make sure to buy a subwoofer from the same manufacturer that built your speakers. The sub’s crossover is usually designed with the company’s line of speakers in mind. Is it impossible to use a different company’s subwoofer? No, but integrating the subwoofer with your main monitors may prove to be more challenging.

I’m hoping that it’s now more evident that driver size is a somewhat weak characteristic to base purchasing decisions off of. If you’re comparing a 5” set of monitors to an 8” set of monitors apart of the same product line, the larger speakers will probably produce higher quality results. However, when comparing a 5” set of Brand A speakers to an 8” set of Brand B speakers, you need to look past driver size and focus on the differences in performance. Brand A could very well be a comparable option to Brand B at a significantly reduced price.

Boundary EQ and Additional Features

Studio monitor manufacturers are starting to build EQs in their speakers that provide a surprising amount of control. A built-in EQ can help you achieve a near-flat frequency response at your listening position by compensating for the way the sound produced by your speakers interacts with the surfaces in your room.

Kali Audio provides a basic form of built-in EQ with their Project Lone Pine monitors, and on the back of their speakers, they include a reference chart with optimal settings based on the monitor placement configuration you’re using. With these monitors priced as low as they are, it’s astonishing that Kali Audio was able to incorporate this feature.

An image of various speaker placements, along with complimentary boundary EQ settings
Various speaker placements, along with complimentary boundary EQ settings. Image courtesy of Kali Audio.

KRK SYSTEMS is developing a really cool app called KRK Audio Tools that you’ll be able to download on your smartphone. It will assist with monitor placement, level matching, subwoofer level and crossover setting assistance, polarity, and EQ. Their G4 studio monitors provide a visual graphic EQ that is DSP-driven, and they also have a built-in brick wall limiter that will automatically engage to protect the system.

An image of the KRK Audio Tools app.
Image courtesy of KRK SYSTEMS.

Acoustic Treatment

Acoustic treatment seems to be a mere afterthought when buying studio monitors, and the degree to which an untreated or poorly treated room hinders your ability to mix is severe. I’m almost tempted to say that if you aren’t going to bother with acoustic treatment, you shouldn’t even bother with studio monitors in the first place. Working in an untreated room can result in mixes that translate far worse to various systems than mixes created on headphones.

Headphones take your problematic room out of the equation, which is a huge benefit, but you lose your ability to perceive the stereo image of your song in the same way a listener would on a pair of stereo speakers. Crosstalk, or the interaction between the left and right channel, is responsible for the phantom image between your speakers. On headphones, crosstalk doesn’t occur, and your perception of a song’s stereo image is skewed.

To learn how to properly sound treat your studio, read “The Ultimate Acoustic Treatment Guide for Home Studios.” You can build professional quality acoustic panels for as little as $25/panel. Sound treating a room can be surprisingly simple and affordable.

Setting a Budget

The truth about the budget that you put aside for studio monitors and acoustic treatment is that you can get great results for just under $500. When you increase your budget, you open yourself up to more studio monitor and acoustic treatment options, but it won’t necessarily make the difference between a “good” mix and a “bad” mix; or rather, the ability for the mix to translate well to different playback systems.

How Much to Spend on Studio Monitors

Quality studio monitors range anywhere from $150 per speaker to $5,000+ per speaker. More expensive studio monitors may be more revealing than cheaper monitors, or they may provide more advanced features, but they don’t guarantee better results. The skill of the mixing/mastering engineer still holds a dominant hand in the quality of the music produced.

More expensive monitors are meant to make mixing your music a less tedious process. Being able to hear the intricacies of a mix clearly will allow you to avoid having to check your mix on 5 different playback systems, and this saves time. By using a quality set of studio monitors with a subwoofer, in a studio that has been acoustically treated, your perception of your mix should translate effectively to other playback systems without much difficulty.

How Much to Spend on Acoustic Treatment

Acoustic treatment is like tipping in a restaurant. If you go to a nice restaurant and order a steak for $40, don’t tell me that you “can’t afford to tip.” What actually happened is that you don’t know how to manage your money properly because you’re an ignorant asshole. What you should have done was get a cheaper menu item and tipped your server correctly.

Anyways, my point is that if your budget for studio monitors is $1000, put aside a couple hundred dollars for acoustic treatment and buy slightly less expensive monitors. The benefits that acoustic treatment provides far outweighs whatever mechanical upgrade a speaker in a somewhat higher price range is going to offer. If you don't think you need acoustic treatment, read "The Reason Your Always Mix Your Bass Too Quiet/Loud" to learn the shocking extent to which an untreated studio can negatively effect your mixes.

Compare Studio Monitors Within Your Studio

If your local music store allows it, ask to borrow/rent a couple sets of speakers for a week or two. Studio monitors aren’t the type of gear that usually gets rented out by music stores, so getting your hands on speakers before you buy them may be somewhat of a challenge. Perhaps you have a few friends with studio monitors that are willing to bring them over to your studio for the day.

I can talk all day about studio monitor specs, driver types, and speaker materials, but at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is how they sound. Are they allowing you to create mixes that translate well to various other playback systems? If they aren’t, it doesn’t matter how expensive they are; they aren’t producing results.

Studio Monitor Recommendations

Recommending a pair of studio monitors is tricky because diminishing returns come into effect as you start to look at more expensive audio equipment. The following low budget recommendation will provide you with great value at a low cost, whereas the following high budget recommendation will provide you with slightly more value at a significantly higher price point.

You need to determine how much money you’re comfortable spending on studio monitors, put aside some of your budget for proper acoustic treatment, and refrain from reaching beyond your means. Not being able to pay your rent next month isn’t worth it for a set of studio monitors that produce a slightly clearer sound.

All of the following studio monitors are what I would consider "good" studio monitors. Whether you choose the low budget, mid-budget, or high budget option, you should be able to produce high-quality results in a sound treated studio. Instead of recommending specific studio monitor models, I've recommended different studio monitor series.

Pick a series that falls within your budget, and then select an appropriate studio monitor from the series based on the key principles discussed in this guide. Studio monitor manufacturers usually post product specs online which can provide you with information like amplifier class, wattage, driver size, frequency response, frequency range, crossover frequencies, listening distance, max sound pressure level (SPL), system total harmonic distortion (THD), input types, and more.

The following spec sheet is for the Kali Audio Project Lone Pine LP-6 and LP-8. This should provide a sense of the type of information available to you when browsing for studio monitors:

Low Budget Studio Monitor Recommendation: Kali Audio - Project Lone Pine Series

An image of Kali Audio's Project Lone Pine Series studio monitors.

Kali Audio seemingly appeared out of nowhere over the past year and introduced the Project Lone Pine LP-6 ($149/each), and LP-8 ($249/each) monitors into the pro audio marketplace. They’re dirt cheap in comparison to other similar studio monitors and perform exceptionally well.

How is it that these speakers are so cheap? Kali Audio has been able to optimize performance by cleverly designing things like the port on their speakers to drastically reduce chuffing, which does nothing to increase the cost. They’ve even gone as far as to ship their speakers in basic uncolored packaging, allowing consumers to save even more money.

In my opinion, Kali Audio has cornered the budget studio monitor market, and other companies have a lot of catching up to do if they want to continue to compete at this price point.

Mid-Budget Studio Monitor Recommendation: ADAM Audio - AX Series

An image of ADAM Audio's AX Series studio monitors.

Amongst music producers and audio engineers, the ADAM Audio A7x monitors ($749/each) seem to be the popular choice from the ADAM Audio AX Series. These monitors tote a reduced risk of phase cancellation thanks to the chamfered upper corners of the cabinet. They contain an internal fleece that prevents disturbing internal resonances and that also provides enhanced bass reflex tuning. A minor, but convenient feature on these speakers is that the power switches are on the front.

The amplifiers used in this series are of particular interest. A fast-acting A/B amplifier drives the tweeter, and in the A5X, A7X, A8X, and A77X monitors, the bass/mid-range woofers are driven by pulse-width modulated (PWM) amplifiers, which tend to be more reliable and durable than many other amps.

These speakers allow you to adjust the level of high frequencies by up to 4 dB using the Tweeter Gain function. On top of this, there’s a low-shelf (below 300 Hz) filter that you can use to boost/cut frequencies +6/-6 dB, and a high-shelf filter (above 2.5 kHz) than you can use to boost/cut frequencies +6/-6 dB as well.

Transient response quality relies on the X-ART tweeter that is handmade in Berlin. The tweeter uses a slim, pleated foil as its diaphragm, which provides a precise transient response that’s meant to help you to pick apart the details of your mix. The AX Series is my top recommendation for professional music producers and audio engineers when it comes to mid-budget studio monitors.

High Budget Studio Monitor Recommendation: Genelec - 8000 Series

An image of Genelec's 8000 Series studio monitors.

The Genelec 8000 Series is engineered to deliver a flat frequency response and eliminate diffractions through the use of a die-cast aluminum enclosure. These speakers provide Directivity Control Waveguide (DCW™) Technology, a reflex port design, optimized amplifiers, protection circuitry, an Iso-Pod™ stand, a Minimum Diffraction Enclosure (MDE™), room response compensation, active crossovers, Intelligent Signal Sensing (ISS™) Technology, and versatile mounting options.

If you’re looking for a top-tier speaker, Genelec is going to deliver. For studios with clients coming in and out the door, day after day, I think the 8000 Series is worth the investment. The Genelec 8000 Series is my high budget studio monitor recommendation.

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If you're interested in learning more about music production, sign up for a free online music production lesson with a Black Ghost Audio instructor today. They're happy to answer any questions you may have about recording, production, mixing, mastering, and music business.

Charles Hoffman is a mixing and mastering engineer at Black Ghost Audio. After graduating from the University of Manitoba with a degree in English Language and Literature, Charles continued his education at Icon Collective, a music production school based out of Los Angeles, CA. You can send him a work inquiry at charles@blackghostaudio.com.

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