It’s this accuracy – where your mixes are presented back to you with a flat frequency response, with no artificial boosts or cuts – that can cost a lot. So the first question you need to ask, is … do you really need new monitors?
If you have worked with a set of studio monitors for some time, it’s possible that you have developed an intimate working relationship with them. You might, for example, know that they deliver an extra boost at a certain frequency, so you already adjust your mixes to counter this. Knowing your monitors can be half the battle, so there’s a good argument that you don’t need to upgrade.
If your mixes are constantly heavy or light in areas of the mix, and you struggle each time to compensate, then perhaps it is time to move up. Very often, cheaper speakers are artificially colored in one area to make them sound less cheap. Unfortunately, if they have been enhanced in the bass end – a common trait in smaller speakers – you will pull that bass back in the mix and end up with bass-light results. So, if this is a fight you have with every mix, then surrender to an upgrade.
Other benefits that better monitors deliver are extra width and detail. Because your mix is so accurately laid out before you, it’s possible to surgically EQ tracks away from one another to make them more distinct and accountable, or place every track in a different part of the stereo image so that everything can be heard. If your mixes lack this breadth and detail, then it’s also time to splash out.
One final reason to upgrade is if you are moving to a bigger studio. Lower-powered near-field monitors are great for smaller rooms as you sit closer, avoiding hearing too many reflections of the mix bouncing around the room. Moving to a larger space might mean more power is required and smaller speakers might not cut it. Here we’d recommend nearfield monitoring, simply because midfield monitoring will usually require you to treat your larger room for those acoustic issues, and that’s another feature in itself!
The tech talk
First, it’s time to understand the technical lingo that goes with buying monitors. We’ve already touched on some of it above, like the frequency range which is the range of audio frequencies – from bass to treble – that a monitor is capable of delivering. As humans we tend to hear between 20Hz and 20kHz. Most monitors won’t go down to 20Hz (around 50-60Hz is common), but you can get subwoofers to extend your frequency range downwards if bass-heavy music is what you are focussed on.
Remember we mentioned accuracy earlier? Well, the frequency response figure can give you an indication of how accurate a monitor is, as it shows how ‘flat’ the frequency response is. The flatter it is, the more accurate, so what you hear will be ‘the truth’. The frequency response figure not only gives you the range but supplies a +/- dB too, and this shows you how much, in dB, your range might go up or down; how it’s boosted or cut, in other words. A figure of +/- 3dB, for example, is okay as it indicates that some frequencies will vary from others by just 3dB.
SPL or Sound Pressure Level is also important as it will give you a gauge in decibels of how loud a monitor goes before it distorts. You can aim for at least 85dB, although you shouldn’t monitor at louder levels for too long. It’s generally accepted that if you have to raise your voice to talk above your mix, you need to turn that mix down.
Next up in the tech terms are the terms active and passive monitors. Active monitors come with an amplifier built in to drive the speakers, while passive monitors don’t, so you’ll need to buy and match a separate amp to do the job. Active monitors not only negate the need for having another piece of gear clogging up your studio, but their built-in amps will have already been designed and matched to the speaker drivers, so the overall sound will (hopefully) be a well-tweaked response that takes both sets of components into account. There are good passive monitors and separate amps out there, but if you are new to monitoring, it’s far easier to go for an all-in-one package with matched amps and drivers that the expert speaker designers have configured for you.
Other terms often quoted include the inputs for the cables around the back (which tend to be XLR or jack). The power in watts of each of the speaker’s drivers (the main circular components of the speaker) is also stated in a lot of stats and can give an indication of volume, but use the SPL as a better one. The weight and size is also important, depending on how mobile you want your monitors to be and what your room size is.
Finally, there’s the number of drivers in your speakers. A 2-way speaker is one that delivers bass via a driver called a woofer and treble via a tweeter, A 3-way monitor adds a mid-range speaker/driver for the middle frequencies. That’s not to say that 2-way speakers all lack mid capacity – many are exceptional at handling this – but 3-way speakers do tend to offer a more joined up picture, but are usually more expensive because of this.
How to test
Nothing beats sitting down with a set of speakers and listening to them yourself, and many dealers have specialist areas set up where you can audition and compare speakers. You’ll be surprised at just how much you will learn when auditioning like this, so it’s an exercise well worth doing, especially as you will be spending quite a bit of money. While there are some fantastic cheaper models now available from the big guns of Adam, Focal, JBL and more, you usually get better results with speakers costing well into four figures.
Finally, a quick note on listening. When setting speakers up for auditioning and mixing, place each speaker not too close to a back wall, each angled towards you. Position yourself at equal head height to the tweeter (the smaller driver) with you positioned at the third point of an equilateral triangle (the other two being the speakers). You are now sat in the sweet spot of the speakers which should give you the optimum listening experience. Some monitors offer a wider sweet spot but this is how you can guarantee you are in the right place, whatever the model.
Shopping for studio monitors can be a complex task, but the above advice and tips should give you a solid foundation for making the right choice. Invest the time and money now, and your music will be reaping the rewards for years to come.