You might have the ideal setup – great workstation, amazing plug-ins and the coolest instruments around. All these things are basically worthless unless you have a good pair of monitors so you can actually listen to what you’re doing. So what makes a pair of monitors “good”?
To me, the best monitors are the one’s I am really used to work on as my ears are accustomed to their frequency response. What if you are just starting and want to buy your first pair? There are several specifications that you will find on any manufacturer’s website that can guide you into buying quality products. Some of these specs are total harmonic distortion, sound pressure level, frequency response and of course things like power and driver sizes. Let’s take a look at a few of the best options to choose from below:
Now, let’s take a look at all the specifications that are usually used to describe monitors and learn how to read them:
Most music gear distributors out there list this specification erroneously, usually by writing something like: “43 to 20.000 Hz”. This is very misleading because it only says that the monitor in cause can handle frequencies from 43 Hz to 20000 Hz and it tells the buyer nothing about how the monitor actually reproduces certain parts of a frequency spectrum.
Think about how much of a bummer it would be if bought a monitor with the above mentioned frequency response statement only to discover that 100 Hz is reproduced with 6 dB SPL less than 1 kHz. Some music gear sellers are a bit more specific and write the frequency response something like this: “43 Hz – 20000 Hz”, ± 2 dB.
While this tells the buyer that the speakers relative difference between the loudest and the lowest frequency of the spectrum will only get up to 2 dB SPL, it is still not very accurate – which frequencies are represented with lower amplitude values? The most accurate way to describe this very important specification is by using a frequency response plot.
On the X axis the frequency spectrum is spread out while the Y axis registers amplitude variation in dB SPL. With such a graph it is easy to understand how your monitor will sound – or at least get an idea. This is not entirely accurate either as you have to use microphones to measure this and even the most accurate microphones have a frequency response of their own, you get the idea. Nevertheless, it is the best way to describe frequency response and you will usually find this in a products manual on the manufacturer’s website.
Power & Amplifier
Mostly all monitors on the market have modern D-Class amplifiers built into them so most sellers don’t even say anything about the amplifier type. The power specification tells us what kind of power the on-board amplifier can provide to the speakers.
Power is measured in watts (W) and is always equally distributed to both speakers for the best frequency response. Anything between 10-60 W will be plenty for a normal sized room. If you are buying monitors for a big live room I would still recommend more less powerful units rather than big power consumers.
Studio L3 at the Berklee College of Music
This spec tells us how the manufacturer designed the speaker with regards to sound propagation. A near-field design is created to be used in proximity to the listening position thus sort of eliminating the effect of first order reflections of sound from the walls to the listening position.
On the other hand a far-field design is usually found in large studio application, most commonly mounted inside a wall. We will mainly look at near-field monitors in this article as they are a lot more common in project studios than far-field monitors.
A thing to take into consideration is that most large professional studios that have far-field monitors installed also have near-field and mid-field monitors set up and use all of them to compare mixes – it’s definitely not a cheap endeavor.
Video: Near-field and Far-field Monitors
This spec defines the total amount of harmonic distortion added to a signal. As you might know, a sound is composed of many frequency components and THD measures the total frequency information that a monitor adds to a signal – any modification to the original signal is distortion and THD measures all these modifications.
A lot of times you will see THD+N which is the total harmonic distortion and random noise (added by the speaker because of electrical interference or other such causes). This not only common but in fact is a lot more representative and makes monitors more easy to compare. One monitor might have a very low THD but a very high floor noise level and unless the noise level is also stated you might never find out about it until you buy it. This spec is usually written as “THD+N < 0.3%” which means that less than 0.3% of the output signal is distortion. 0.3% is on the border of acceptable – you should look for the tinniest amounts of THD+N in your studio monitors.
Most studio monitors out there have a two way driver set-up with the woofer handling all low and mid frequencies and the tweeter being responsible for all the high frequencies. Thought uncommon, three way monitors exist and those have another driver that is responsible for reproducing mid frequencies.
Rarely will you learn what the actual cones are made out of from specifications. What you will usually get is the size – sellers write things like: Woofer: 7″, Tweeter: 1,1″ – while this may hint you in discovering how manufacturers sometimes lie about frequency response (in cases where the woofer is just to small to reproduce, for example 30 Hz.) it usually won’t tell you much about the monitor’s performance.
EQ, Input, Filters
Most units will have some built in EQ to help you shape the sound of your monitors and make small adjustments to account for minor flaws in frequency response at the listening position. some will have a three band EQ, some just a simple high-pass filter. Always be careful to find out what kind of connection your monitor uses to receive input – the most common is XLR but some also take quarter inch line inputs as well.
Some of the Best Monitors Out There
Now that we have a basic understanding of how to read and understand monitor specifications, let us take a look at some of the best products on the market. Remember that these choices do not reflect the absolute best products – best is incredibly subjective when it comes to studio monitors. The list we will be looking at contains some excellent products that are widely used in studio applications with excellent results:
KRK Rokit RP5 G3
Click here to see reviews and prices for the KRK Rokit RP5 G3 on Amazon.com
For the money you pay, these monitors are amazing. They are definitely not very flat as they do exaggerate the bass and the high end quite a bit but after you get used to them they are very comfortable to work with – and in their price range it is hard to find something as accurate as these. Check out their full spec list here.1
Click here to see reviews and prices for the Yamaha HS8 on Amazon.com
Designed by Yamaha to replace the legendary NS10 monitors, the HS series is the modern brother/ sister of the late 70′ legends. The frequency response on these is quite flat with only one weird spot in the 7-8 kHz area. There is a bit of a dip in that area but otherwise the HS8’s are quite surgical tools. Check out the full spec list here.
Click here to see reviews and prices for the Event Opal on Amazon.com
Event is owned by the Australian microphone company RØDE (of which I am a big fan). This monitor design is the first project they did after the acquisition of Event – and it was a resounding success. The bass definition on these is absolutely amazing. The overall frequency response is fairly flat with a bit of a boost on the <100Hz lows. These are very serious monitors that are intended for professional use. Check out the full spec list here.
Dynaudio BM6 MKIII
Click here to see reviews and prices for the BM6 MKIII on Amazon.com
This is yet another case of extreme quality in a product. The design is fabulous and the sound you get with these is very sincere and pristine. The frequency response on these is truly surgical and I have to warn you that you will have the tendency to turn the bass up in your mix too high on your first mixes (it took me quite a while to get used to them). Check out the full spec list here.
Click here to see reviews and prices for the Genelec M040 on Amazon.com
Though a little cheaper than the Opal or the BM6 series the M040 is a highly reliable monitor. These only deviate with more than 1 dB in the upper high frequencies, around 15 kHz – otherwise they are considerably flat and they offer extremely clear mid frequencies and very expressive bass. Check out the full spec list here.
In today’s democratized music market, getting a lot of bang for your buck is a lot easier than it used to be – and it is especially true when shopping for monitors. One big recommendation is try not to shop online. It is good to be able to read specs but it is just a million times better to be able to go and listen to the units themselves.
If you can, take some tracks you are very familiar with on a USB drive and ask if you can play them through your preferred monitors – that will give you a much better idea of how they sound compared to reading specs.