When it comes to creating sonic masterpieces, quality monitoring is one of the most important aspects of your studio. Every single project you work on passes through your studio monitors—every beat you produce, every track you record, every session you mix and every album you master. Your monitors are the epicenter of your sound, so it goes without saying that choosing the right studio monitors is an important decision. In this article, we’ll break down everything you need to know about monitors to help you find the perfect solution for your studio.
Passive, Powered and Active Monitors
Studio monitors are typically broken into three categories: passive, powered and active. While powered and active monitors are very similar, there is a slight distinction between the two. This article will describe each system in depth, but for now keep this in mind: Passive monitors require an external power amp and have a built-in, passive crossover. Powered monitors contain one built-in amplifier and built-in crossovers, while true active monitors contain active crossovers and a dedicated amplifier for each speaker in the cabinet. In practice, you would have to read the monitor’s specs to see if a particular monitor is considered powered or active.
Passive monitors are often less costly and may seem simpler than their active counterparts. However, passive monitors require choosing and purchasing an external power amplifier, which may be a decision that requires considerable time and effort. Speakers and amplifiers interact, much like microphones and preamps, and each listener may prefer a specific amp to match with a specific monitor. Power amplifier brands like Bryston, Hafler and Hot House have proven to be studio staples, while many listeners opt for the hi-fi companies offerings by Chord Electronics or Moon Audio. These amps are chosen as much for their sonic quality as for their reliability and silent operation. Passive monitors utilize non-powered, analog crossovers to direct the low frequencies to the woofer and the high frequencies to the tweeter. Passive speaker and crossover design is a mature industry and many levels of performance and price are available. (If you’re interested in learning about passive crossover design, check out the free VituixCAD software).
The ubiquitous (but discontinued) Yamaha NS-10 studio monitor is perhaps the most well known example of a passive studio monitor. Currently Avantone makes the CLA-10, an extremely close replacement for the original NS-10. The passive ProAc SM100 has also become a favorite among many top mixers.
Powered monitors are much like passive monitors, but feature a built-in power amplifier that powers all the drivers through a built-in high level crossover. By providing a dedicated, built-in amplifier and crossover, the manufacture can create a convenient and matched speaker/amp system. Additionally, powered monitors may have some built-in equalization options and may provide more than one connector type for easy interfacing with your studio setup. Powered monitors have become rare and have been replaced with active monitor designs.
Active monitors feature a dedicated power amp for each driver. This approach allows for precise (analog or digital) active crossover design, which provides an optimized frequency response. Active monitors which utilize DSP have become simple to design and modern amplifier technologies have made this once uber-expensive style of speaker quite affordable. Like powered monitors, active monitors typically have some user controls like onboard equalization, user presets and may also provide several connection options for easy interfacing with your studio setup.
Active designs are great for installed and mobile setups, as they can be set up quickly and easily with just two cables. Although they lack the ability to mix and match components, active monitors come ready to play, right out of the box, saving you from having to experiment with different configurations.
Near-field vs Mid-field vs Far-field
Near-field monitors are so designated because they are placed near the listening position—typically just one meter or closer. Since the speakers are very close to the listener, these compact designs help avoid interference and inaccuracies caused by early room reflections. Many modern studio monitors are near-field, 2-way designs with woofers as small as 4 or 5-inches. Near-field monitors are typically the most affordable option, however, due to their small size, some models lack adequate bass response. Nearfield monitors can range from the modestly priced active JBL LSR305 to the high-end Kii THREE.
Mid-field monitors, typically placed on stands behind the desk or console, are designed to be up to four meters from the listening position. Powerful 3-way midfield monitors offer extended dynamic range and low-frequency response. Mid-field monitors work well in larger, acoustically treated rooms but are likely to exacerbate acoustical problems, such as uncontrolled room reflections in small, untreated rooms.
Common examples of mid-field monitors would be the Neumann KH310 or the ADAM S3V. These modern midfield monitors are active, with built-in amplifiers and filters, but there are also excellent passive midfield monitors like the legendary B&W 802.
Far-field monitors, sometimes called “Mains” or “Bigs,” are often built into the control room front wall in high-end pro studios. They tend to be very large; they can play very loud, and tend to be very expensive. In-wall or soffit mounted speakers provide acoustic benefits over stand mounted speakers, since the speaker and room create an integrated acoustic system. Designing an in-wall system requires acoustical analysis and custom construction, so the aid of an architect or acoustic consultant would be suggested. Far-field monitors in most studios are mainly used to check the low end of a mix or impress visitors, earning them the name “client killers.” Most engineers rely on near-field or mid-field monitors to do most of their mixing with an occasional playback on the mains for fun and hype. Mastering studios, however, tend to rely on accurate main monitors for critical work and tend to employ. custom built mains or ultra high end designs like the PMC towers.
If you’re mixing in a small room, stick with near-field monitors. If you have a little more space and have done some acoustic treatment, mid-field monitors offer improved frequency response and fidelity, but, on the other hand, if you’re looking to “wow” the record execs next time they’re in town, check out some of the high-end far-field designs available from companies like ATC, and Genelec.
Two-way vs Three-way
Simply put, two-way designs feature two drivers: a woofer for low frequencies and a tweeter for high frequencies. Alternatively, three-way systems feature two crossovers that divide frequencies among three drivers: a woofer for low frequencies, a dedicated midrange driver, and a tweeter for high frequencies. Generally speaking, three-way designs are capable of producing higher SPLs, produce lower distortion and may have an extended low frequency response when compared to two-way designs. However, three-way monitors usually cost more because they require more components and are much more complicated to design properly. Popular three-way speakers include the Focal Twin6 and the ADAM S3V.
Remember, not all monitors are created equal, and a well-designed two-way system can easily outperform a budget-friendly three-way system. Three-way designs are an excellent option for those who want a balanced frequency response but are mixing in too small of a studio to use mid-field monitors.
One of the distinguishing features between different studio monitors is the size of the woofer. Generally speaking, monitors with larger drivers have an extended bass response and a louder output, but many two-way speakers with smaller woofers have a more balanced critical mid-range frequency response.
The design of the cabinet has a big impact on the frequency response and output level of a studio monitor. Most woofers utilize a cone design to achieve better bass response and improved output. A cone driver works by pushing and pulling air to create sound waves. However, all of that movement creates pressure changes inside the cabinet, which can affect low frequency output. Studio monitors utilize three different designs to control or enhance their low frequency output: sealed enclosures ported closures, or passive radiator designs.
Sealed enclosures are exactly what they sound like—an airtight that completely isolates the rear of the driver. Sealed enclosures offer excellent transient response and are often much smaller than ported designs. However, the low frequencies of sealed enclosures tends to start rolling off at a higher frequency than ported designs.
Ported enclosures, sometimes called bass reflex designs, feature an open port or a tube for venting air from inside the unit. Ported designs offer higher bass output and extended bass response than sealed enclosure designs. However, ported enclosures may exhibit a slight resonance around the port tuning frequency and are more difficult to build correctly, often making them more expensive.
Some studio monitors utilize a passive radiator design, or membrane, instead of a port to improve their low frequency extension. From the outside, passive radiator monitors sometimes look like a three-way speaker. However, the extra driver (usually one of the larger speakers) has had the voice coil and magnet removed to create a passive radiator system. Passive radiators may cost more than ported systems and have typically provide similar benefits and drawbacks of ported speakers.
Regardless of driver size, most studio monitors don’t extend much below 50 Hz. In order to accurately monitor very low frequencies, many engineers choose to supplement their monitors with an added subwoofer. Be careful, though—using an improperly positioned or tuned subwoofer can cause masking problems, making it difficult to hear crucial midrange frequencies. Many manufacturers realize how difficult it may be to properly tune a subwoofer, so they produce subwoofers with crossover settings designed to match their nearfield and midfield offerings. While these subs are not perfectly tuned for any individual room, they offer a good starting point.
Depending on what type of projects you work on, you may not need a subwoofer. If you mainly mix bass heavy music genres or audio for post production subwoofers may be key. If you’re mainly working on jazz, acoustic music, podcasts or even most rock music, you can probably get along fine without a sub.
How To Improve Your Sound?
Selecting the right studio monitors can feel overwhelming and it’s important that you find something that fits your budget and personal taste while proving the most linear frequency response possible. Without accurate studio monitors, you can’t trust what you’re hearing, which leads to wasted time, self-doubt and less creativity.
No studio monitor is perfect—at least not without proper room treatment and some help from room tuning software, like Sonarworks Reference 4. With Reference 4, you can measure the actual response of the monitors in your room and correct the frequency response of your favorite monitors in your favorite space.