For the novice and pro alike, choosing a set of studio reference monitors is no small task. I mean, your entire career and the sound of your music rides on what type of speakers you use right? All joking aside though, it is a big decision, and, for many of you, monitors will be one of the largest investments you’ll make for your studio.
Questions will come up like:
- What size monitor do I need for my room?
- Do I need a sub?
- What brands and models should I check out?
- What “must-have” features do I need to know about?
- What type of frequency response do I need?
- What are the pros and cons of front-ported and rear-ported?
In “Studio Reference Monitor Buying Guide – The Basics”, I’ll give you the lowdown on these various factors to consider and help make this paramount decision a tad easier.
At the bottom of this post, I’ve also included a Recommended Products section for you to check out. This is a list of some of the studio monitors I’ve personally used, have reviewed, or brands I’ve had experience with. It’s not a de facto list of every option on the market, but I would recommend using as a place to begin your research.
There’s also a What I Have in my Studio where I list the monitors and equipment I currently use and have thoroughly vetted.
Before you charge ahead, make sure you’ve read my other post entitled, “Before You Buy Studio Monitors” where I cover essential topics like acoustic treatment, monitor stands, and decoupling.
What Reference Monitors Are & What They Aren’t
The biggest misconception that new producers and engineers have about professional caliber reference monitors is that they are meant to sound “good”. Regular home stereo “hi-fi” speakers are meant to sound good. They flatter the sound, often by beefing up the lows and highs and scooping the mids. They accentuate what’s there and make it sound better. That’s what they’re designed for. As a music producer or mix engineer, you want to avoid these like like the freakin’ plague.
“Reference” or “studio” monitors, however, are designed with a whole other purpose in mind. They’re designed to give the truest, most honest representation of the sound possible. In some ways, you might say reference monitors try to make the music sound as bad as possible by revealing all the flaws in the mix. And – get this – companies will charge you a lot money for these speakers that don’t even try to sound “good”. Bullshit right? Why might you want that?
You want reference monitors because they make you work hard for a good mix. They don’t hype the sound in any way. In an ideal situation, when you nail a mix on a set of proper monitors, that mix will translate well when you play it on other systems. If you mix on hi-fi speakers, or other speakers not engineered to be reference caliber (ex: PA speakers, DJ monitors etc.), you will likely make an error in judgement and miss something that will then become glaringly apparent when you play your song on another sound system (every producers’ worst nightmare!).
Probably the best example of this concept is the Yamaha NS10. They’re those innocuous looking white-coned speakers you see in a lot of pro studios sitting on the console bridge next to another set of really big expensive ones. They are famous for sounding so lackluster that if you can get your mix to sound decent on them, it’ll sound good almost anywhere. That being said, good reference monitors don’t need to sound bad. In fact many of them sound excellent. But what you’re looking for – first and foremost – is that they’re revealing and accurate.
How Much Should I Budget?
These are rough estimates to give you a ballpark of how much cheddar you’re gonna have to drop to buy into the monitor game. All prices listed are for a pair of monitors:
- Compact, entry-level monitors could range from $200 to $400 USD
- Full sized, entry-level monitors could range from $400 to $800 USD
- Compact, pro-spec monitors could range from to $1000 to $1,600 USD
- Full sized, pro-spec monitors could range from $2,000 to $10,000 USD or more
Note: Keep a watchful eye on pricing. Many monitors are listed with a price “per speaker”. You need two of them, so you’d need to double the price in that scenario. Also be aware that some speakers come in specifically matched pairs or some are configured as a left-only or right-only. For example the Dynaudio BM15A Classic has an offset tweeter and port, meaning the left speaker is different than the right.
I’ve Heard They’re Supposed to be “Flat”…WTF is That?
Studio monitors are trying to be flat, not flattering. What I mean by “flat” is they’re designed to give true and accurate sound, and not accentuate or color things in any way (in terms of frequency response). Do all of them succeed at that? No! In fact, the actual sound produced by many monitors is far from flat. This is why you need to get informed and do your homework.
How Are Monitors Measured?
This is a really important point. You’ll see monitors advertised as 6” or 8”, but what does that mean? Generally, it’s the size of the woofer. As some of you may have noticed though, if you measure the woofer of a monitor it often doesn’t match up with the advertised size. That is because there are three separate measurement points for this statistic and no standardization in the industry on which one is used. The three common measurements taken are:
- From the edges of the active surface.
- The active surface is the rigid, conical center part of the woofer that actually moves air. To me, this is the most meaningful and accurate measurement of size.
- From the edges of the surround. The surround is the flexible ring that attaches the active surface to the basket and allows the woofer to move. It’s usually made of rubber or something durable and flexible to withstand a lot of movement over time. Many companies measure their monitors including the surround.
- From the edges of the basket. The surround attaches the woofer to the basket, a metal structure which contains the entire woofer assembly. Some companies use the entire basket assembly to measure their speakers.
Because there’s no standardization, you can’t really tell exactly how big the monitor is unless you measure it yourself. Let’s walk through an example. Badass Boomers makes a 7” reference monitor called the Face Melter (fictional company, fictional speaker). It measures to the edges of the active surface. Jiggity Juice makes an 8” reference monitor called the ElektrokutR (fictional company, fictional speaker). It measures to the edges of the basket. If the ElektrokutR has a 0.25” surround, and a 0.5” basket, then the active surface is actually only 6.5”. Math: 8” – (2 x 0.25” surround) – (2 x 0.5” basket) = 6.5” diameter active surface.
So, the moral of the story is that stats are often misleading, inflated, misrepresented, inaccurate, or un-meaningful. Don’t choose your monitors based on stats! Choose your monitors by listening to them.
What Size Monitor Should I Buy?
This is one of the biggest questions. Larger monitors are more expensive, and they aren’t always the best choice. The size of monitor you buy will largely be determined by your room and the style of music you make. If you’re mixing in a tiny den or a cluttered bedroom in a wood-frame apartment building, then getting a smaller-format, ultra-compact monitor might be a good choice. But if you’re mixing low-end heavy bass music, then smaller speakers won’t let you hear the subs properly.
Here are a few rules of thumb:
- If you’re in a small room, or a room that has no acoustic treatment, then get smaller monitors and get really close to them in a nearfield setup. This will minimize problematic low frequency buildup. In my experience, large monitors in a small, untreated room are more trouble than they’re worth. You get all kinds of phase cancellation and frequency accumulation that impairs your ability to hear correctly.
- If you have the space, and have invested into acoustic treatment, get a larger monitor. By “larger” I mean something like an 8”, for example the Tannoy Reveal 802 (entry level) or Dynaudio BM12mkIII (pro-spec). These will be fully capable of producing ample low-end without the use of a separate sub. As a mix engineer, it’s far more desirable to get your full range signal from a single pair of monitors that are capable of producing a broad range of frequencies from your subs all the way up.
- If you are mixing bass-oriented music like hip-hop, deep house, dub step, trap, drum n’bass and so on, then you’ll most certainly want to get speakers with adequate bass extension. Getting the sub level wrong is the most common mistake of novice engineers, and it’s usually attributable to incorrect equipment and room setup to be able to properly hear the lows. Anything less than a 7” or 8” monitor and you just won’t be able to perceive the low end. Many smaller monitors will have stats that say “flat +/- ____ dB down to ____ Hz”. You can’t trust these stats, you have to actually listen to the monitors down low. Trust me, a 4” monitor is just not capable of producing sub at a level which you can use to mix. You’d be better off to judge your sub in reference headphones.
- Also beware getting monitors that are much over 8” for home project studios and small to medium rooms. Many larger monitors like 10” or 12” setups are really midfield monitors designed to be used in much larger rooms and at a greater distance from the listener. They’re aimed more at impressive volume and a big sound to “wow” clients in pro studios than for mix clarity. I also, personally, find that the larger the woofer, the less accurate it is to mix on, especially in the mids.
Active vs. Passive
Passive monitors need to be plugged into an amplifier. Because they lack on-board amps, they’re cheaper. I don’t recommend passive monitors though, because matching an amp to the speaker is tricky business and it adds a layer of complexity to your setup. If you mismatch your amp, you may not get the most out of your monitors.
Active monitors (aka. powered) have built-in amplification. In fact, most of them have two amps, one for the woofer and one for the tweeter. This is a big advantage in that individual amps can be tested, tweaked and most effectively matched to get the best performance out of each component in the speaker. Some three-way monitors even have three amps.
What is a Sweet Spot?
You’ll hear this term a lot with monitors. The sweet spot is the ideal position for your ears to be at to get the clearest perception of the full frequency range of the speaker. Speakers, especially tweeters, are very directional. Monitors are designed with waveguides that shape and direct the sound from the tweeter and control how it’s dispersed towards you. Some monitors have a nice big sweet spot, while others are less forgiving and require you to be at a very specific position to properly hear them.
Typically, you’ll want to start with the speaker aligned so that while you’re at your mix position, your ears are exactly at the level of the tweeter. This is because high frequencies are the most directional. You also typically want to have your monitors set up in an equilateral triangle where the monitors are the same distance apart from each other as each one is from your ears. Beware of angling your speakers up or down! This may get the sweet spot correct at your usual mix position, but even slight forward or backward movement will cause the sweet spot to be higher or lower due to the angling. Keep your monitors on an even plane if possible, and adjust their height with stands or products like decouplers. If you must angle your speakers, be acutely aware of the impact of any forward or backward movement.
Speakers are big electro magnets. Computers and magnets…not usually a good combination! Enter magnetic shielding. Any decent monitor should be magnetically shielded so it won’t do weird things like affect the your computer screen or even potentially damage magnetic storage media.
Demystifying Input Connections
Studio monitors typically have three common connections:
- 1/4” or TRS
- and/or RCA
First you should understand what the term balanced means. Balanced means you have two hot sources and one ground (such as in a 3 pin XLR or a 1/4” TRS). Unbalanced means you have one hot source and one ground (such as in 1/4” TS). I’m not going to get into all the nitty gritty about it, but if you want a full rundown on the differences, check out this article.
XLR connections are the most common for professional audio equipment. On entry level monitors you’ll most likely see RCA and some form of 1/4” (balanced or unbalanced).
Some high-end monitors have optical, digital SPDIF (Sony/Phillips Digital Interface) connections. This allows the signal to stay digital all the way to the speaker, and the digital to analog conversion actually happens right in the monitor resulting (theoretically anyways) in less noise.
Connecting Your Monitors
You’ll want to use the shortest cables possible. The longer the cable, the louder the noise, typically. Also ensure you’re using high quality, shielded cables. I see too many people buy expensive monitors with cheap cables. It’s like buying a Ferrari and putting it on the rims and tires of a Honda Civic.
This is not a complete list of every monitor on the market. This is a short list of monitors I’ve personally tested, or brands which I’ve used before in the past. These are options and starting places for you to begin your research.
For shielded speaker cables, check out:
Kopul Premier Quad Pro 5000
For ultra-compact and compact entry level monitors, check out:
Tannoy Reveal 402
Tannoy Reveal 502
KRK Rokit 5 G3
Focal Alpha 50
For full size entry level monitors, check out:
Tannoy Reveal 802
KRK Rokit 8 G3
Focal Alpha 80
For ultra-compact and compact professional monitors, check out:
Dynaudio BM Compact mkIII
Focal CMS 40
Focal CMS 50
*Note: Regarding Adam monitors, they use XART (accelerated ribbon technology) tweeters that produce supersonic audio. When I tested them, they sounded amazing. Too amazing, in my opinion. I’m listing them here because a lot of people like them. However, I felt that they did flatter the highs and, seeing as most people will never be listening to your music on fancy tweeters like that, I wasn’t a fan of them as my main reference monitors. Perhaps as a backup set or just to listen to music on in my living room they’d be perfect.
For full size professional monitors, check out:
Focal Solo6 Be
Focal Twin6 Be
Mackie HR624 mkII
Mackie HR824 mkII
What I Have in my Studio
Tannoy Reveal 802 (my backup monitors)