“How do I choose a set of studio monitors?” This question comes up a lot, and although I’ve addressed it before, it’s time to do it again. When it comes to monitor speakers, there are certainly plenty of choices, and currently there’s no single favorite.
It would be great if there was a standard, but the closest we’ve ever come to that was the Yamaha NS-10M, closely followed by the Auratone 5C. Because NS-10s are no longer made, they’re not seen in studios much any more. Auratones have fallen out of favor since their peak of popularity during the ’70s, but many mixers still use them as an additional reference (although sometimes only one in mono), especially now that they’re being manufactured again.
That said, you don’t necessarily need a set of studio monitors that are considered a standard or are even popular among mixers. It’s possible to get great mixes out of virtually any set of speakers in just about any room, and that includes using headphones as well. The trick is that you have to have enough listening time to get a reference point as to what sounds good or bad when you play your mix back elsewhere.
That’s why mixers began to take their own speakers with them wherever they went (or asked for NS-10s) in the first place. It was a sound that they were familiar with, and since NS-10s were nearfields, the room didn’t come too much into play during the mix, so they could be more comfortable with the result.
One of the good things about today’s monitors is that since most of them now come with their own on-board amplifier, you no longer have to worry about purchasing an external amplifier to power them. That eliminates one of the major headaches of choosing a monitor, since the match with the amplifier is critical, and the speaker could sound very different when paired with a different amp. With the on-board amp now perfectly matched to the monitor, this is no longer a problem. Plus, the overall monitor package is less expensive as well.
But what if you’re in the market for a new set of studio monitors? Here are a few tips to consider before making your choice
1. Don’t choose a studio monitor because someone else uses it.
Monitors are a lot like guitars. Just because Slash uses a Les Paul doesn’t mean that it’s also right for you. It might not match the music you make, or it might be too heavy for your particular body frame. Same with a monitor. Just because your favorite mixer uses a set of Dynaudio BM5As, that doesn’t mean they’ll be right for you, too. They may not fit the type of music you work on or fit in your room, or they may not even appeal to the way you hear.
2. Listen to the studio monitors before you buy them.
Before a pro purchases a monitor, he or she will take the time to listen to them under a wide range of conditions. Why shouldn’t you do the same? It’s understood that this may be a problem if you don’t live near a big city with a pro audio dealer, but many online dealers now have a money-back policy so you can try them at your leisure.
Even if there is a local dealer, you may not have a relationship with them that allows you a personal demo in your own environment, but that shouldn’t stop you from listening to them first. This is a serious purchase, so don’t take it lightly. Make the trip to your local pro audio or music store and prepare to spend some time listening. Listen to all your reference tracks (you do have ref tracks, right?) and spend as much time with each model as you can.
What should you listen for? Here’s how to evaluate a monitor:
- Listen for even frequency balance. While listening to a piece of music that you know well, check to see whether any frequencies are exaggerated or attenuated. This is especially important in the midrange crossover area (usually about 1.5k to 2.5 kHz). Listen to cymbals on the high end, vocals and guitars for the midrange, and bass and kick drum on the low end.
- Make sure the frequency balance stays the same at any level. The less the frequency response changes as the level changes (especially when playing softly), the better. In other words, the speaker should have roughly the same frequency balance when the level is quiet as when it’s loud.
- Make sure that the monitor speakers have enough output level without distortion. Be sure that there’s enough clean level for your needs. Many powered monitors have built-in limiters that stop the speaker or amplifier from distorting but also may keep the system from getting as loud as you might need it to be.
- Above all, don’t buy a set of monitor speakers without listening to them. It’s usually very difficult for speakers to live up to your expectations if you’ve not heard them first. In fact, it’s not a good idea to buy any speaker unless you’re really in love with it. You’ll have to listen to these monitors for a lot of hours, so you might as well like what you hear.
3. Listen with source material that you know very well.
The only way to judge a monitor is to listen to material that you’re very familiar with and have heard in a lot of different environments. This gives you the necessary reference point to adequately judge what you’re listening to. If you don’t have anything that you’ve recorded yourself that you know inside and out, use a favorite CD or a hi-res file that you consider to be well recorded.
Remember, don’t use MP3s here! Use only CDs or an even higher quality 24-bit source, such as files on a flash drive or a personal digital recorder. That should give you some idea of the frequency response of the system.
One thing I learned when writing speaker reviews for EQ magazine over the course of five years is that you can easily get used to just about any speaker if you use it enough and learn its strengths and weaknesses. You’re going to be spending a lot of time with your new studio monitors, so choose the ones that sound and feel the best to you, and don’t be influenced by anything else.
You can read more from The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.