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A Look at Monitor Speakers

Bobby Owsinski • Audio TechJune 2021 • June 12, 2021

One area for confusion for even professional recording engineers is monitor speakers. That’s because there are so many good ones available that it’s difficult to make a choice. Pick a price range and I promise that you’ll be swimming in possible selections that will make even someone with a lot of experience suddenly have a headache. I’m not going to tell you what to buy, but I’ll give you some information so you can make an educated decision.

The purpose of a monitor speaker is to give us as accurate a representation of the playback source material as possible. Just like anything else, the more money you spend, the more likely you’re going to attain this ultimate scenario, but there’s more to it than that unfortunately.

Monitor Speaker Principle #1

The first thing to remember is that no matter how good or bad your speakers are, you can get used to them and automatically compensate for any deficiencies when you play something back. The key here is having some reference material that you know really well. Play it back and you know what it should sound like on your monitors. Play it back somewhere else and you’ll immediately notice if there’s a difference.

What’s the ideal reference track? Ideally it’s something that was really recorded and mixed well. Most engineers that I know choose something by Steely Dan or Donald Fagen, but it could be almost anything. The secret is that you’ve listened to it for a long time and know the piece extremely well. If you just choose “Peg” or Hey 19” because someone says they’re supposed to be good, that won’t work. You don’t have any experience with the track. You have to know the song intimately.

Getting back to speakers that you know, once again, you’ve used them for so long that you know how really well mixed material makes them react, and you know how your ear compensates as a result. Experience is what makes this work.

Monitor Speaker Principle #2

That brings us to the next principle – all speakers have an ideal playback level. There is one level that’s the sweet spot where all the frequencies are ideally balanced. The better (meaning more expensive) the speaker, the wider that playback level range is. Turn the level down or turn it up and it still reproduces more or less the same way without any huge changes in frequency response. That’s not the case as you go down in price.

Choosing A Monitor Speaker

Probably the worst thing you can do is purchase a speaker because you read it was good, or because a studio celebrity uses it. That’s a recipe for buying something that you’ll never be happy with or will take you a long time to learn.

First of all, it’s imperative that you actually listen to the speakers before you buy them. Consider this a major purchase. You wouldn’t buy a car with driving it. You wouldn’t buy a refrigerator without looking inside and measuring it first. You wouldn’t buy an instrument without playing it (although some people do these days, which confounds me).

Ideally you’d want to audition speakers in your own studio setup but listening in another comparative environment like a music store or audio dealer will work as well.

Remember the reference tracks we just talked about? That’s what you’re going to be bringing with you to the audition. Bring the version with the highest possible resolution that you can. In other words, no MP3s, no Spotify, no Pandora – it’s CD or higher (lossless streaming like from Tidal, Deezer, Qobuz, Amazon Music and soon, Apple Music, is ideal). If you have Wav, AIF, or FLAC files of something you recorded, that works too.

Now compare this material through only 2 or 3 speakers at a time in your price range. Limit your choices so you don’t get confused – you can add additional choices later after you’ve eliminated some.

Be sure to listen at different levels. Remember what we said above about the sweet spot volume level? It does you no good if that level is too loud or too soft for your purposes. The ideal speaker should be the most consistent over a range of volume levels (especially quiet), although one that sounds particularly good at your ideal SPL level works too.

Once you’ve settled on a speaker, compare it to one in a higher price bracket just to see if the difference is all that great. If it is, you might want to stretch your budget. If you can’t do that, at least you know what to shoot for the next time you’re in the market for new monitors.

A critical piece here is that you make a purchase from somewhere that you can easily return them if you’re not satisfied. Most dealers will do that, even the ones that sell online like Sweetwater. By the way, a good audio dealer is worth exploring here because their recommendations can be very helpful, especially if you’re not aware of the choices available.

There are lots of monitor parameters that we didn’t cover, like powered vs. unpowered, woofer size, power amp size, and more. Next month we’ll look at monitors a bit more in depth.

Producer/engineer Bobby Owsinski is one of the bestselling authors in the music industry. His latest, The Music Mixing Workbook, provides exercises to help you learn how to mix on any DAW. Visit Bobby’s website at bobbyowsinski.com.

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