A set of good studio monitors can greatly enhance your music production
But which are the best studio monitors?
You can manage to produce really good-sounding music with just a pair of headphones, but it helps to have a second source of audio output, to get a better picture of your sound balance. But first, we need to explain the purpose of loudspeakers and make a clear distinction between studio monitors vs traditional loudspeakers.
What are loudspeakers?
Loudspeakers are electroacoustic transducers, that convert electrical audio signals into sound. The most common household speaker is the dynamic speaker, which operates on the same basis as dynamic microphones, except the direction of sound is the opposite. When an alternating current (AC) is applied to the voice coil inside the speaker cabinet (also called enclosures). The voice coil itself is a coil of wire, that is suspended in a circular gap between the poles of a magnet. The AC forces the coil to vibrate, resulting in sound waves in the air.
A complete speaker features multiple dynamic drivers (or elements), that are adjusted to replicate sound waves on varying degrees of frequency. These types of speakers are knowns as “Full-range speakers”, as they don’t need additional drivers to complement their playback range. The drivers, however, can be separated into their individual elements, depending on the range of the driver. The most common classification of dynamic drivers are as follows:
- Subwoofers: These drivers, as the name suggests, reproduce low frequencies. A typical subwoofer has a frequency output from 20 Hz up to 200 Hz. Stand-alone subwoofers are paired with mid- and hi-range drivers to reproduce the complete range of sound.
- Mid-range drivers: The mid-range is the frequency range from the top end of the subwoofer output to the low end of the hi-range. The exact range of this varies depending on who you ask, but generally, mid-range starts from around 250 Hz and ends in around 5-6 kHz.
- Tweeters: Tweeters reproduce the high-end of the speaker frequency range, from 5-6 kHz all the way up to around 20 kHz, which is the limit for human hearing.
You can get a visual view of the musical frequency range by looking at the following chart:
Now that we got some of the basics out of the way, let’s dive into the concept of studio monitors and what sets them apart from loudspeakers.
What’s the difference between studio monitors and home stereo loudspeakers?
The difference between home stereo speakers and studio monitors isn’t obvious for everyone, but they ultimately serve different purposes. In essence, home speakers are used to enhance the sound – to “color” it, so to speak. The common home speakers are usually “passive” speakers, which means that they need an external amplifier for the sound output, unlike studio monitors, which are usually “active” speakers. Studio monitors have built-in amplifiers for all the dynamic drivers that they come with; the subwoofer, the tweeter, and sometimes also a mid-range speaker.
The main difference between household loudspeakers and studio monitors is that the latter will give you an unbiased and un-enhanced output of your work. This is important since it can sound different on different setups, devices, speakers, and so on.
Studio monitors generally have way more punch in their sound, since they have their own dedicated amps, and are not powered by a single big amplifier like the usual passive speaker setups. They give you the bare output with no tricks or additives, so that you can hear the flaws in your music, not to hide them.
Because of these properties, passive speakers are usually cheaper than studio monitors, and they also have more flexibility when building their setup. But, there are no shortcuts to the perfect sound – If you want to be a good bedroom producer, you’ll definitely go with studio monitors in your home studio!
Important features for the best studio monitors
Several factors come into play when you’re buying a new set of studio monitors. As a rule of thumb, we suggest you go with a brand or a model that’s been applauded in reviews. For a beginner musician/producer, it isn’t as important to get into the nitty-gritty intricacies of studio monitors. Here are some of the key features to look for when selecting the best studio monitors for you.
Power is one of the most important specs in studio monitors, which is measured in watts (W). This doesn’t just correspond to the output volume; it also affects the quality and range of the sound output.
The higher the wattage is on your home studio monitors, the louder and more detailed their sound output will be.
Single-amp, bi-amp, or tri-amp?
What are the differences and which ones should I choose for my home studio?
Single-amp studio monitors
Single-amp studio monitors have a single amplifier for the low, medium, and high ranges. This makes them cheaper, but it also means the audio output suffers.
Bi-amp studio monitors
Bi-amp studio monitors have individual amplifiers for the subwoofer and for the tweeter. This makes it possible for the monitors to output more a pristine sound, since each driver has its own configuration.
Tri-amp studio monitors
Tri-amp studio monitors have three amplifier configurations, which also includes a mid-range driver, along with the woofer and tweeter. This means they have the best audio output, but they are also much more expensive.
If you are a home studio musician or bedroom producer, the best choice would be a set of bi-amp studio monitors.
One of the key aspects of a good quality studio monitor is its frequency range, as you want them to be able to replicate and handle all sounds that you have in your tracks. An average studio monitor has a average frequency range from around 50 Hz to 20 kHz, as most people won’t be able to hear any sounds above or below this range.
You should have a look at the frequency response (analysis of frequency versus amplitude) of the monitor. The specs may say that the monitor will have an output as low as 30 Hz, but the amplitude for this frequency is only -15 dB, so you couldn’t even hear this sound with such low volume playback. The amplitude might be heavily affected also by the surroundings and the placement of the monitor, so you shouldn’t just blindly look at the specs. The best studio monitors give you more than enough punch for a home studio environment.
Sound pressure level
The maximum sound pressure level (or SPL) is the loudest volume output that your monitor can reproduce. The measurement for this is the decibel, represented by the symbol dB. But when your volume output goes over 0 dB, the sound will get distorted, this is just a simple law of physics. That’s why when producers make their tracks, they make sure that the sound volume never peaks over 0 dB, and when mastering music, it’s way more advantageous to have several decibels of headroom to avoid distortion.
Different monitors cope with distortion to varying levels and it’s often added to the specs by the manufacturer. This spec is known as total harmonic distortion, or THD. A lot of the time this value is less than 0,03%.
Near, mid and far-field monitors
This attribute is pretty self-explanatory: at what distance are your monitors designed to be listened from? Since you’re very likely to work in a home studio like most of us, near-field monitors are the go-to choice. Near-field monitors are generally designed to be about one to two meters away from the listener, which makes them optimal for a room setup – just put them on or near your desk. But even if your room is small, you might want to look into soundproofing and acoustically treating your walls a bit, since bare walls tend to cause tedious sound reflections and echo.
Trim controls come in handy when you need to adjust the frequencies to playback more optimally in your studio surroundings. Listen to how the sounds behave in your room and adjust the lows and the highs accordingly.
Automatic room control
Automatic room control is a feature exclusive to active speakers. It offers you the possibility of adjusting the monitors’ deficiencies to compensate for its surroundings, by using a calibration microphone. This is not a requirement, since you can get the settings pretty much to your liking by just using trim controls.
The monitors have a different sound distribution pattern and they’re usually adjusted to be positioned in a specific way – either standing up or laying on their side. If you have no option to place the monitor as intended, you should look into how drastic the changes are in sound dispersion when placing it unconventionally.
Sensitivity is a measurement of the efficiency of passive speakers, which tells you how much power is needed to reach a certain level of volume. This isn’t an important factor for a home studio, and any studio monitors you buy will do just fine for home use, so we won’t go more into it for now.
Impedance is another factor for passive speakers only. Impedance measures the average resistance, that the speaker gives to the amplifier. Since we’re talking about active monitors, we don’t need to discuss this factor. Active studio monitors have been balanced regarding their impedance by the manufacturer, since the amps are built into them.
These are not essential features by any means, but are nice for the sake of convenience. The front panel should feature:
- Power button
- Power indicator
- Volume control
Having the power button on the front panel, with a visible indicator for power and volume controls are just good to have – especially if you’re working in a cramped room.
The best studio monitors on a budget
These are some of our favorite picks for people, who want to buy the best studio monitors while on a tighter budget. As producers we’ve been very satisfied with KRK monitors, which are great all-rounders for every music producer and home studio musician. Besides KRK being our first mention, we don’t necessarily rank these studio monitors in any particular order. All of them are viable options!
KRK Rokit RP5 G4
KRK’s are often considered to be the higher end of budget monitors, but they’re really worth the dough. My aforementioned set in the picture is the 3rd generation of Rokit RP5 bundle from Thomann, that cost me 255 € plus the decimals, which is a bargain for a good quality pair (especially when the bundle came with stands). G4 is the upgraded model, which is also very affordable for bedroom producers.
They come with a rich spectrum of sound, for both high and low frequencies.
The only annoyance I’ve had to deal with has been the power and trim knob placements, which are in the back. Luckily, I have no need to adjust them constantly.
Definitely a solid choice for any producer, highly recommended!
Behringer B2031A Truth
Behringer’s Truth series have been around for a long time, but they’re still very viable option for many music producers all over the world even a decade later. The Truth’s have often been the choice of my other musician friends, who considered the KRKs to be a bit too far out of their price range. They are a heavily based on the design of Genelec 1031A, which was manufactured from 1991 to 2005. Even though they’re considered to be a knock-off product, they’re still rocking countless home studios in 2020 and you can pick a brand-new pair for around 300 €.
One should also get familiar with other Truth models from Behringer, as they’re good budget options.
IK Multimedia iLoud Micro Monitor
IK’s iLouds might not look big or impressive, but you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. The subwoofer is only three inches wide while the tweeter is only 3/4 inch, but the quality that they put out is not anything less of impressive. They also come with a nice set of manual positioning EQ’s at the back panel (see “automatic room control“), that help you adjust the playback to be more optimized for your home studio.
The 1/8” jack input makes them well compatible with mobile devices such as iPad and laptops, while the small stature of the monitors themselves make them very portable too. So, if you plan to make some music with your buddies at a summer home or on a trip, these are a perfect pick for it. You can crab a pair of them for 250 – 300 euros.
M-Audio has been a household name in audio gear for a while, as they started back in 1988. My personal introduction to M-Audio was when in the mid 00’s I bought my first audio interface, M-Audio Firewire 410. Ever since I’ve been a happy supporter of M-Audio product line and their studio monitors aren’t too shabby either. BX5s have been applauded by several music media outlets and we tend to agree: the sound clarity that the BX5s put out is very impressive. Just like IK iLouds, they have room correction as a feature.
If you need a pair of very clear sounding monitors to compliment your headphones, look no further! They also exemplify the meaning of a budget studio monitor, as you can grab a pair for less than 200 €!
Mackie CR3-series are a great budget pick in case you think you can’t afford the likes of KRK Rokit or M-Audio BX5. Mackie’s product line is known for delivering good quality monitors for very affordable price tags and probably the best representation of this is the CR3-series. The build for these babies is solid and the sound is really fresh, although they might be a step behind in the low frequency spectrum. Some models also come with Bluetooth-feature, which is great for music streaming. They also have some important knobs conveniently place in the front of the speaker cabinet, which just feels nice.
You can purchase a pair for Mackey’s CR3’s for around 150 euros or less, depending on the model. Definitely worth checking out!
Alesis Elevate 5 MKII
Elevate 5s represent the lower end of budget monitors for us. Even though the start to get left behind by the higher end of our recommended list, the Elevate 5 MKII is an option to them who really are working with tight budgets. As a disadvantage to the more expensive counterparts, that lack for bass starts to be noticeable. There is, however, a bass boost that you can turn up to compensate and they can still regardless give you some serious volume. We don’t recommend these as your first options for producers, but keep them in mind in case you find yourself short for cash or you just want to get a good pair for your home entertainment setup.
You can stash a pair of Elevate 5s for as low as ~125 euros. If you find yourself going below this price point, we suggest saving up a bit so you can invest in a better set of studio monitors.
The best studio monitors will last you for years to come
We hope that this article gives you a bit more of an idea of what to look for in studio monitors. We will be expanding our recommended products eventually, but these are picks we think you really can’t go wrong with. When you buy a good pair of studio monitors, they should easily last you for a decade and beyond, so you don’t have to be looking for a new set any time soon.
Be sure to check out our articles and recommendations for other music production related subjects, such as DAWs, audio plugins and mastering! We’ll also be publishing articles for audio interfaces and headphones in the near future, so stay tuned!