So Many Speaker Choices!

Bobby Owsinski • Audio TechOctober 2021 • October 9, 2021

A few months ago, we looked at the basics of how to choose a set of monitor speakers, and now we’ll go a bit more in-depth. If you recall, there are two basic principles when it comes to monitors. The first 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 second is that all speakers have an ideal playback level where they sound the best. Let’s look a little more in-depth at the choices that are available.

Power vs. Unpowered
Today most monitor speakers are powered, meaning that they have an amplifier or amplifiers already built in. This is generally a good thing because:

  • the amplifier is optimized for the speaker and cabinet
  • it’s a lot cheaper than having to purchase a separate amplifier
  • it’s probably running some internal digital signal processing (DSP) to overcome some of the speaker or cabinet’s shortfalls, and even compensate for when the speaker components age
  • it sure makes setup a lot easier
  • you never have to worry about a blown speaker due to the built-in limiter

With unpowered (also called “passive”) monitors, choosing the right amplifier is critical as that can change the sound, as is the power output of the amp. Generally speaking, a larger power amp (100 watts vs 25 watts, for instance) sounds a lot better because of the increased headroom, but that comes at a higher dollar amount as well. Plus, you have to worry about speaker cabling, which is yet another conundrum best left to the manufacturer.

So why would anyone ever choose a unpowered monitor? For one thing, they can potentially sound better. Many engineers hate the built in DSP and feel that it’s getting in the way of what the true performance of the speaker, which is somewhat debatable. A second thing is that passive monitors can potentially play louder because there’s no limiter in the way. Of course, this comes with the potential negative side effect of blowing speakers, but with the good comes the bad.

By the way, I’m one of those who now uses a passive setup, although my Amphion One18’s also uses an Amphion 500 power amp and speaker cable so it’s a turnkey solution.

Woofer Size
It used to be that if you wanted more low frequency response then you’d need to purchase a monitor speaker with a larger woofer (or even 2). That’s no longer the case as speaker DSP has evolved to the point where it can compensate for not only the limitations of the speaker and cabinet, but where it’s placed in the room as well.

To illustrate the point, a few weeks ago I was having brunch with a friend at a nice French restaurant. The piped in music sounded particularly good, so much so that at the end of the meal I went searching for the speaker to see what brand it was. I was shocked when I found that it was a small 6-inch cylinder made by Sonos that was putting out sound that seemed way beyond its capabilities.

If you’ve ever heard one of the latest smart speakers by Amazon or Apple you’ve probably noticed the same thing. No longer are we tied to woofer size to hear the low end that we missed in the past. DSP has come to the rescue.

How High End?
But that doesn’t mean that we can use a smart speaker as a studio monitor. They’re not made for the everyday abuse that comes with recording and mixing live music. The same goes for audiophile speakers.

Audiophiles have long argued that we should be using super high-end audiophile speakers like Egglestonworks or Quads in the studio because they sound better. They do, but the problem is that they tend to last about 5 minutes under the strain getting a kick drum sound, not to mention the occasional wild feedback or mic drop spikes. Monitor speakers intended for the recording studio are built to take the beating that they’re subjected to day in and day out.

That said, these high-end speakers are frequently used by mastering engineers because their demands are quite tame as compared to recording. Mastering engineers typically listen at only one comfortable level (remember the sweet spot playback level?), so there’s even less abuse than in a home environment.

So, what does this all mean? There are a ton of really good monitor speakers available, most of them are powered and employ DSP, and they’re getting better all the time. The chances of choosing something horrible is small these days, and as principal one states, any speaker will be useful to you as long as you’re used to it. If you can’t decide, just opt for the larger speaker and you’ll be okay.

Producer/engineer Bobby Owsinski is one of the best-selling 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

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