Studio monitors are one of any studio’s most essential and ubiquitous components. Whether it is a professional studio or a home studio, they are often one piece of gear you should pay extra attention to. This guide looks at what studio monitors are and how they vary in design and features.
There’s quite a difference between studio monitors vs speakers. Fundamentally studio monitors are loudspeakers. But they are specifically designed for use within a professional audio environment. The thing that separates studio monitors from other speakers is the focus and intent behind the design.
Studio monitors aim to represent an audio signal in its most natural and balanced state. Accurate sound is a fundamental feature that sound engineers require so that they can make proper mixing and mastering decisions.
Studio monitors are an essential part of any studio.
Conventional speakers, like what you might find in a home entertainment system, will often feature a more colored sound. They tend to emphasize the lower frequencies and higher frequencies. The resulting frequency response curve tends to look like a smiley face. It is a satisfying sound profile to listen to but not accurate enough for serious studio work.
On the other hand, studio monitors aim to stay as close to the baseline as possible. This allows for accurate mixing and mastering so the end audio will sound great across various systems. A properly mixed and mastered piece of audio will sound great on a home audio system, your smartphone, and even your car stereo.
Types Of Studio Monitors
Now that you know the intent behind studio monitors, we can dive into the various types available today. Here we will look at near field vs mid field vs far field studio monitors. Understanding the different types will help inform you as to which one will be right for you.
Near Field Monitors
Near-field studio monitors are one of the most common types of studio monitors on the market. The best near field monitors offer exceptional accuracy but work best within a near-field environment. In other words, you need to be pretty close to the speaker for the best results.
The general distance is 1 meter or about 3 feet. Near-field monitors will also have a relatively narrow sweet spot. The sweet spot is where the stereo image of the sound waves is at its best.
Near-field monitors sound best at short distances.
This is why companies and people often emphasize finding the correct studio monitor positioning. As you move away from the sweet spot, you’ll notice a distinct drop in sound quality.
The narrow dispersion of near-field monitors also helps when it comes to acoustics within a studio. Lower dispersion makes it easier to tame reflections from walls, resulting in a more balanced and accurate acoustic profile.
Mid Field Monitors
A mid-range speaker projects audio signals further and broader than near-field monitors. In a spacious studio, these can often be a great choice.
These speakers tend to be larger and deliver higher-quality audio over further distances. This allows for the speakers to be further away from the listener. It also provides a broader sweet spot which can be helpful if you work as a duo or group on your productions.
Mid-field monitors allow you to sit further back in your studio.
As you can imagine, it becomes critical for proper room treatment when using mid-field monitors. The potential for room modes to interfere with your listening experience dramatically increases. Room mode issues are when a sound wave travels and reflects off surfaces and walls.
Depending on the length and speed of the sound wave, there is the potential for it to collide with another sound wave, which impacts sound quality within your studio space.
Far Field Monitors
The final type of studio monitor you’ll encounter is far-field monitors. These are primarily for larger studios due to their size and projection capabilities. They are often large and deliver high volume levels.
A far-field studio monitor is often crowd pleaser due to the extended bass response and the ability to fill a room with sound. This can be useful when showcasing your work to clients. They don’t need to be sitting in your listening position, and the slightly colored response is satisfying.
Far-field monitors are only appropriate for larger studios.
Much like mid-field monitors, you’ll need to pay extra attention to the dynamics of your studio space. A sound wave from a far-field monitor can be problematic, so utilizing bass traps, diffusion panels, and absorption panels are critical. Otherwise, the sound quality will suffer immensely.
Types of Amplification
Now that we have covered the type of studio monitors available, there is another important distinction you need to be aware of. Different studio monitors will have different ways that they handle power. Below we cover the three types of amplification and how they might impact your choices.
Powered monitors will feature an internal amplifier that will boost the input signal to a higher level to attain the sound level needed. They will also feature a passive crossover after the amplifier to regulate which driver the amplified signal goes to.
Powered monitors are among the most common and popular types of studio monitors. They are easy to use, and there is no guesswork involved. You don’t need to know how to match an external amplifier to your speakers and can plug and play.
Passive monitors do not include a built-in amplifier. These speakers require an external power amplifier to boost the signal. Passive monitors will also feature a passive crossover, much like powered monitors.
Passive monitors allow you to reduce the number of power cords you need to deal with. Instead, you’ll need to run the speaker wire from the studio monitor to your amplifier. They are also generally lighter than a powered studio monitor. The other key advantage of a passive studio monitor is the ability to upgrade your amplifier independently, which is why they are a popular choice for a home theater system.
But since passive monitors require an external amplifier, they are not as beginner friendly as powered or active monitors.
The final type of monitor speaker is an active monitor. These speakers do not require an external power amp, much like powered monitors. The critical difference with active speakers is that they will feature a dedicated amplifier per driver.
Active monitors will also feature an active crossover. This will split the signal before sending it to the relevant built-in amplifier. Due to the dedicated amplifier per driver, there is greater control over the signal and a lower loss of potential power. But since these studio monitors feature more than one power amplifier, they are often more expensive.
Which One Is The Best?
As with many components of a studio setup, there is no definitive answer to which one is better. You’ll need to factor in your needs as well as your budget.
A powered monitor system is often the easiest and cheapest option for most beginners. But, suppose you are using multiple speakers in a mastering studio. In that case, you might want more control and opt for a passive speaker and external amplifier. On the other hand, an active studio monitor might be the ideal choice for balancing approachability and quality.
Ultimately, when it comes to active vs passive speakers the right one will depend on your needs and goals.
Types of Cabinets
The next thing to consider when buying a studio monitor is the speaker’s enclosure. While it might seem innocuous, the cabinet can play a significant role in your studio monitor’s performance. Below we take a look at the key features you need to be aware of.
Most modern studio speakers are made with one of two primary cabinet materials, wood or plastic.
The earliest speakers all featured a wooden cabinet; to this day, it is still a popular material, albeit with some modern tweaks. Most notably, the heavy use of MDF in modern speaker construction.
Wooden cabinets feature good acoustic qualities, and the rise of mass commercial manufacturing of medium-density fiberboard (MDF) has made it a very affordable material to work with.
MDF is widely used in studio monitor cabinet construction.
While many people prefer the acoustic properties of a wooden enclosure, it also presents some limitations. These cabinets tend to be square boxes with set corners that can deflect sound in unwanted ways.
The other popular cabinet material is plastic. Injection-molded plastic of all varieties has provided greater freedom in both technical and aesthetic design. It is not uncommon to now see a range of home stereo speakers, computer speakers, and studio monitors all sporting a plastic cabinet.
Plastic is also very cost-effective for mass-scale production, and its rigid nature provides an element of control when designing the speaker. Combined with quality components, a plastic enclosure can easily compete with a wooden equivalent.
But, it is worth paying attention to the quality of the plastic. Thin and cheap plastic will often produce unwanted rattle resonance and creaking stress noise. This will hamper the audio signal, leading to a sound quality that is not as “warm” as a wooden cabinet offers.
Ported Or Sealed
The other factor to consider when it comes to enclosures is whether they are ported vs sealed speakers.
A sealed enclosure will not have any opening for air to escape from the speaker’s interior. Air builds up within the cabinet as drivers move and create sound waves. This pressure will dissipate as heat but require more power to deliver a fuller low-end response. But in turn, sealed monitors have a lower roll-off point, creating a smoother and more accurate bass response.
Front-facing ported monitors are a good choice for smaller studios.
A ported monitor will feature one or more ports for air to escape from the cabinet. This added freedom allows the drivers greater freedom of movement as they are not fighting against internal air build-up. The result is bigger bass from less power. The roll-off might be more aggressive, but a well-tuned port can still produce an accurate bass response.
It is also worth mentioning the impact of the location of the port. Depending on if they are front ported or rear ported speakers, you will get a different result. Front-firing ports will project sound forward while rear ports eject sound at the rear. Which type is best will depend on your studio setup.
If you are close to a wall, a front-firing ported monitor might be the better choice but be aware of potential desk reflections. If you have the space, a rear-ported monitor is a viable option.
The final component of cabinet design is the waveguide that the speaker employs. Most studio monitors will use a waveguide to assist with sound delivery.
A waveguide will help shape directivity and ensure a smoother crossover between the woofer and the tweeter. Soundwaves travel at different speeds and directions depending on the frequency. High frequencies have shorter wavelengths and are more directional. In comparison, lower frequencies will have longer wavelengths and emit sound in an omnidirectional nature.
An expertly crafted waveguide greatly assists with even dispersion.
A studio monitor with an effective waveguide will help smooth out imbalances across the frequency range and improve directivity. But what is effective varies depending on the intentions of the monitor designer. Some monitors are designed to have a narrow field, while others provide a wider soundstage. The size, design, or lack of a waveguide will play a role in how a monitor performs.
In general, monitors with effective waveguides will produce better results. But, and it’s a big but, everything will depend on personal preference, your acoustic space, and the results you wish to achieve.
Spend any amount of time looking at various studio monitors, and you’ll come across a range of technical specifications. While all the specifications are relevant below, we highlight some of the more common and impactful specifications you should have some familiarity with.
One of the most common specifications you’ll encounter when buying studio monitors is frequency response. It’s a number that will often be the first thing people will look out for, and it goes a long way to highlight the sound reproduction qualities of a monitor.
What Is Frequency Response
Frequency response, at its simplest, indicates the range of frequencies a studio monitor can replicate. This will be a range that will feature Hz and kHz ratings. For example, a studio monitor with a frequency response of 20Hz – 20 kHz can represent low-frequency content to 20Hz and up to 20kHz of high-frequency content.
When an audio signal goes through the monitor, the goal is to maintain the integrity of the source by replicating it cleanly. This is often why you’ll hear the term flat frequency response used to describe a speaker. This means that the output sticks exceptionally close to the original.
The frequency response represents which frequencies within the range the monitor can reproduce.
A flat frequency response is exceptionally difficult to achieve. The very nature of the speakers’ audio components will lead to some deviation. Low deviations of a couple of decibels are often imperceptible and, therefore, not an issue. But anything beyond 3 dB can have a noticeable impact on the sound. This results in some sections of the frequency range having greater or lower emphasis than the source.
In some situations, this is not a problem. For example, home stereo speakers often feature a frequency response curve that emphasizes bass and treble frequencies. It results in a colored response, but the listening experience will still be pleasant. But for a professional studio environment, accuracy is paramount. A flat response is crucial so you can make accurate decisions when working.
The Limits of Human Hearing
The limitation of human hearing when discussing frequency response is also worth mentioning. The average human can audibly hear frequencies down to 20 Hz and up to 20 kHz.
Low frequencies are often more “felt” than heard, so a monitor with an extended low-frequency response will offer richer and thumpy bass tonality.
We can only audibly hear certain frequencies.
A very high-frequency response can often indicate clarity in the treble. The monitor has more headroom in the top end to accurately replicate upper-end frequencies. We might not exactly hear them, but they still play a role in the overall tonal quality of sound reproduction.
Another important specification to be aware of is the types of drivers the monitor utilizes and the size of those drivers. Studio speakers will feature a range of drivers. A woofer and tweeter combo is the most common configuration, but some speakers feature a third driver. In most cases, this extra driver will handle the mid-range.
Woofers are the largest driver in a monitor. Generally, they range from 3-inch up to 8-inches. A woofer will move back and forth, generating sound waves based on the source material. They handle the low-frequency output and, as a result, become one of the most significant determining factors when buying a monitor. A larger woofer generally results in a better low-frequency response, which delivers a smooth and satisfying bass response.
Woofers not only come in different sizes, but they also come in a variety of materials. Common materials for woofers include paper cones, plastic polypropylene cones, aramid fiber cones like Kevlar, and in some cases, even metal cones.
There are several different materials that woofers can be made from.
Each type of woofer material has its pros and cons. Paper cones offer various flexible combinations for manufacturers to experiment with to attain their preferred results. They are also a cost-efficient option. But if they are sealed poorly, moisture absorption can be an issue.
Plastic cones offer excellent damping but can seem slightly bland in sound profile compared to paper cones. Aramid fibers provide a high level of durability and respond well to vibrations. They sound livelier than plastic cones but can give their response a slightly sharp ringing quality. This same sound can be present in metal cones, but metal cones also offer maximum rigidity.
No matter what type of material the woofer is made from, the engineering and design expertise behind the woofer tends to be more important. An excellent paper cone can sound fantastic, but equally, a poorly crafted one will be a horrible mess.
Tweeters also come in different shapes and sizes. Since it is easier to replicate higher frequencies, tweeters are usually small in size. Generally, they are 1-inch in size and occasionally slightly larger.
Much like woofers, there are several different types of tweeters available. The most common tweeter type for monitors tends to be silk-dome or soft-dome tweeters. These tweeters offer good sound performance while having a low-cost basis making them an appealing option for manufacturers.
Tweeters handle the high-frequency output.
Another common tweeter type is a ribbon or air motion transformer tweeter. These feature a thin ribbon that can generate an exceptionally accurate high-frequency response. But their ability to handle power is lower than silk dome tweeters.
Compression horn tweeters are also a good choice as they can deliver high SPL and excellent sound. Metal domes are also fantastic and are a step up from paper cones. But as a result, they are more expensive.
Once again, the materials involved play second fiddle to the technical know-how behind the overall monitor design. However, a top-level understanding of the various types can at least give you some insight into potential performance.
The final specification I want to highlight is the power capability of various monitors. I’ll primarily discuss powered and active monitors in this section, but the same principles apply to passive radiators. The main difference is that passive monitors list a recommended power handling range that can guide you to an appropriate external amplifier.
This is among the most contentious specifications you’ll come across with speakers. Manufacturers love to tout large wattage numbers, but there is more than meets the eye beyond these numbers.
The first thing to be aware of is that the power rating listed is often the maximum and may not reflect the continuous level. So while the speaker can handle 200 watts, it may only operate at a more modest wattage.
A higher wattage number also doesn’t always mean one speaker will be better than another. Sound quality and overall volume level should guide you as opposed to a straight wattage number.
There are also diminishing returns with wattage. Each doubling of power only results in a bump of about 3 dB in volume levels. For example, suppose a monitor has a sensitivity level of 87 dB at 100 watts. In that case, it will only increase to 90 dB at 200 watts which is a minor bump.
A better indication of the potential power of a speaker is the Max Sound Pressure Level or Max SPL. This is how loud the speaker can reach, measured in decibels.
Remember that this is the maximum, and running a speaker at its total capacity is usually not advisable. But the higher the number, the more headroom you have and the less pressure you’ll need to place on your speaker. Plus, some speakers distort when pushed to their maximum output levels.
Max SPL determines the maximum decibel level of the monitor.
For reference, anything beyond 85 dB can cause damage to your hearing over extended exposure. It is partly why many studios have a reference level of around 80 dB. To put that into perspective, that is about the same level as a noisy restaurant or heavy traffic.
Sometimes you’ll want to crank up your speakers for short bursts. In those situations having a powerful speaker with a high Max SPL level will be preferable.
Why Are They So Important?
When creating, editing, or mixing and mastering, the goal is to achieve an appropriate balance between all the audio elements. Whether that is instruments, vocals, videos, or speech, you want the result to sound right.
Because of this need, monitors have become essential for recording professionals, sound engineers, and artists. A monitor with flat sound will give you an accurate representation of the changes you are making. And help ensure that your creation sounds its best across various playback sources.
Studio monitors are essential for serious studio work.
For example, imagine you edited your latest track with monitors that over-emphasized the bass. In this situation, you might dial back the bass in your master to achieve the balance you want. But then, when you go to playback your track on a speaker that doesn’t have that emphasis, the bass will sound anemic and recessed.
Creating with neutral monitors is the best way to prevent these issues.
What Are The Best Brands?
Several brands make high-quality studio monitors. Below in no particular order, is a snapshot of some of the most popular and respected brands.
- Kali Audio
- ADAM Audio
Do You Need Them?
Suppose you are serious about creating music or need to edit audio in any way. In that case, studio monitors are an essential purchase.
Classic home stereo speakers with that friendly, smiley-faced EQ curve will suffice for casual listening. And to be fair, when it comes to general listening, they can often be more lively and satisfying due to that colored sound approach.
Studio monitors are the right choice for accurate sound.
But studio monitors offer a level of sound quality that is hard to ignore, and they are not just for professionals. They are also an enticing option if you like to listen to music in its purest form. The level of clarity and precision will bring details out that you may have never noticed, bringing you closer to the original vision that the artist and producer intended.
So while they are not necessary for some people, they are also a unique experience worth exploring and an experience I recommend to everyone.