There are a lot of studio monitors out there for you to choose from and it’s a lot of work just trying to figure who are the noteworthy players in the market.
Deciding what are the best studio monitors for you means diving in the details and considerations around such decision.
In this article, we are going to look at a few options aimed at the typical, small, home studio and we will also dive in a bit into what’s with studio monitors, what are they and so on.
Our overall best – KRK RP6 G3
For the money, they are fantastic speakers with great features and front bass port. They are not the most accurate of all but they see a lot of love and are part of the best-sold monitor series. They also have the necessary controls to adjust them and they are the more “bass heavy” of the bunch.
The upgrade option – Yamaha HS7
Yamaha hit massive success in the late ‘70 with NS10M, now a legend. They continued their work on studio monitors and today we have the HS series which doesn’t disappoint. Both the old and the new made a reputation for highlighting defects in the mix.
Budget alternative – Mackie CR4
The Mackie CR series is labeled as a multimedia monitor aimed at people that work with sound but not necessarily musicians. Think of video creators, indie filmmakers, podcasts and such. They pack some great features and decent sound for the money. And they are affordable.
In this guide
- What are studio monitors and what is their role?
- Studio monitors or hi-fi speakers?
- Who should buy studio monitors?
- KRK Rockit 6 G3 Review – Our overall best
- Yamaha HS7 Review – The upgrade option
- Mackie CR4 Review – Best budget monitors
- Room and speaker size considerations
- Bass port considerations
- Connecting and powering your monitors
- Good monitors won’t save bad acoustics
- What do the specifications mean?
- Other very good options
- In Conclusion
What are studio monitors and what is their role?
Studio monitors are speakers that are purposely built to highlight defects when mixing a track. They do that by giving you a flat signal, no boosts or reductions in any frequency range. At least that is what they try to achieve.
The point of mixing is not to make the perfect mix for the perfect set of speakers. The point is to make a mix sound good on as many different sets of speakers as possible, good or bad, hi-fi or low-fi. That is what studio speakers help you achieve.
To give you an idea, this is how people in the US consume audio content.
You see, when you mix on a crappy system you can make your mix sound good on it. It will take more time, more fine tuning but eventually, it gets there, right?
The problem is that you go with your mix on the next crappy system and it sounds totally different and probably bad.
Buy why is that? What is a crappy system anyway?
Simply put it’s a system that lacks detail, lacks stereo width and everything sounds squashed together without any sense of spacing. It also boosts or cuts frequencies badly.
A bad system certainly doesn’t go as low in frequency as it should and doesn’t go as high as it should to give you a full representation of the song.
Because of all that, if you mix on crappy speakers, what ends up happening is that you over boost some frequencies while cutting too much from others to compensate for what the speaker is doing.
Some things you can’t even adjust properly because you don’t have enough detail in the sound given by the speaker.
Eventually, your mix might end up sounding good on your speakers but move to a different pair of speakers that boosts and cuts differently and your mix sounds like crap again.
It may not be a very technical response but I hope it’s easier to understand this way.
Studio monitors or hi-fi speakers?
“Well ok, I get that, crappy speakers are no good but what if I mix on Hi-Fi speakers? How are they different from studio monitors?”
The story is somewhat similar to the crappy speaker one.
Hi-Fi speakers are made for people that just listen to music, movies, etc., and want high quality audio and have the cash for it.
They might have the quality; they might have the stereo width but…
As a manufacturer, you want to give your customers the best sounding experience you can possibly provide. You do that by boosting some frequencies while cutting others to hype the sound and hide possible defects. Your purpose is to make sound pleasant, not necessarily accurate.
So, you have the quality of sound in there but it’s massaged. It’s specific for that set of speakers.
Move your mix on another system and it will massage the sound in a different way. And now, again, you have a problem with the mix not sounding right.
Studio monitors are purposely build to reveal defects. They don’t really care if you enjoy the music, they have to point you to the problems in your mix. And some monitors do that better that others, indeed, but that is their purpose.
I would say that it is possible to mix and master on good hi-fi speakers but in order to do that you should really know the speakers very well, know how they bust and cut, how they massage the sound and compensate accordingly.
For a beginner though, I wouldn’t recommend it. Unless you already have very good hi-fi speakers and you save some money taking that route.
But generally, if you are a beginner, it’s hard enough to mix when you have all the best gear in the world so don’t force yourself to mix in bad conditions if you have the option.
That is because the mission critical decisions are made at the mix stage.
Who should buy studio monitors?
The short answer is, anybody that has to do with audio, professionally.
For the music makers, it’s quite self-explanatory, you want to be able to mix and master your music as best you can and monitors are a big part of that.
Beyond the music industry, there are however plenty of people that deal with audio. Starting from the Youtuber that makes videos for a living, to the guy making podcasts, the indie game developer and of course the indie filmmaker.
All of these jobs need a way to make sure their audio is good for a wide variety of devices and to keep a balance between voice and background music, sound effects, dialogue and so on.
KRK Rockit 6 G3 Review – Our overall best
You know a KRK from a mile away. Those distinctive yellow cones give them away.
These monitors are the third generation which tells you something right off the bat. They are massively successful and for good reason. What you get for the money is pretty hard to beat.
Let’s look at the specs:
The common consensus about these is that they are not as accurate as other monitors and this might be true but we also have to consider the price.
The sound these guys give you is rich and pleasant to work on. This is another thing to keep in mind. If your monitors are harsh on you or totally out of life, it’s pretty hard to stay inspired and do your thing for hours on end.
The bass is quite deep, you feel it and they are plenty powerful to make a disco party at home. The mids are ok and the highs are soft enough for long hours of working on them.
If you want you can also adjust the sound to make them even more comfortable for you, just be careful with the bass, too much of it and you mix will end up in a bad spot. When you feel you have enough bass crank in down a bit.
Stereo width is decently good. Not the best but enough to work with, especially if you have you setup done right and you keep them at head height.
Design wise they look good in my opinion. Some monitors are just bad looking and these are not one of those for me. I place a great deal of importance into feeling inspired while you work on creative stuff and having a studio that looks nice and helps elevate motivation is part of that.
Considering that you will live with these guys in your face all the time you work, they better look pleasant to look at. For me, they pass that check.
They kinda look like panicked minions but maybe that’s just me.
The construction is solid and it really feels like a quality product. It’s also very versatile in terms of connection options and adjustments.
So, considering all of this, versatility, decent sound, good build quality, and the price, it’s hard to go wrong with them.
Sure, if you have more money, things can get even better but you also have to take into account other accessories that you need with studio monitors like sound card, cables, stands. So put those into the budget as well to get a more accurate idea of what you can get.
Yamaha HS7 Review – The upgrade option
Following in the footsteps of the legendary NS-10M, the HS series had to meet some high expectations. And it did. Starting with the HS80M and now refreshed in the form of the HS series.
They have made a reputation of being fairly transparent and true to sound without exaggerating it to make them have more “sex appeal”.
That remark, take it with a grain of salt. It’s not that it’s not true, not necessarily, but every company says the same thing about their monitors “unlike other companies we make the monitors sound true to the source and transparent.”
Quite a run of the mill, boring remark. Eh…marketing.
The HS7 are good, they sound good, they look good. They don’t try strange new approaches but rather improve on what they know it works.
They do a very good job at revealing defects in the mix, they are everywhere, people love them.
They are however more expensive compared to other guys like the KRK Rokit 6.
I don’t like the back port, generally. It makes the monitor hard to place near a wall but with proper acoustic treatment in the room, this can be somewhat solved, somewhat. Ideally, you have room to keep your desk a bit further from the wall.
Mackie CR4 Review – Best budget monitors
They are not “proper” studio monitors if you are serious about doing music but they are very good for next to no cash for monitor “flavored” speakers.
People doing video editing, podcasts, and other multimedia stuff seem to like them a lot and they are actually labeled as “multimedia monitor speakers”. And I think the description fits very well.
I like that Mackie tells you what they are, a nice quality set of speakers that’s taking a step towards monitor territory but not going fully in, to keep costs down. They have other offerings for proper monitors if you have the money for them.
They can also serve as a good, super affordable second set of speakers to check final mixes on.
The thing with these is that they are made by a company that actually knows their stuff in terms of studio monitors and it shows with the features implemented and what’s included in the package.
These speakers are also very versatile in terms of connectivity. They accept unbalanced RCA, bal. / unbal. TRS and also on the front they have an auxiliary input for things like smartphones and also a headphone port.
A pretty unique feature, that I would like to see more often on this type of speakers, is that they allow you to choose on which side the volume control is. This is done with a switch on the back of the speaker with all the controls. Basically, it switches between being the left or the right speaker.
To make the deal even more attractive Mackie include in the package a set of foam pads that allow you to decouple the speakers from the surface they’re sitting on and also angle them towards you.
Room and speaker size considerations
Rooms size, available space and where you are going to place your monitors play a big role in the decision of the actual pair of monitors and also needed or not accessories.
The size of your room will help you orientate around certain speaker sizes. 5”, 6”, 8” or bigger. The general rule is that the larger the speaker the lower it can go in the frequency range.
For instance, if we look at the Yamaha HS series you’ll notice that the 5” goes down to 54Hz, the 6.5” (HS7) goes down to 43Hz and the 8” goes down to 38Hz.
And you would think that you should just get the bigger one to get more bass, but do you have “room” for it?
A big speaker and a small room don’t add up well.
What ends up happening is that you will get the room filled with bass energy that is also amplified by the room itself especially if the room isn’t properly treated in terms of acoustics.
So you end up hearing way more bass than you actually have in your mix and without clarity. You’ll hear something going on in the low end but it will be very difficult to put your finger on what is actually there.
The bigger the room the larger the speakers you can put in there without massive issues.
For most people, in the average sized room, I think that 6” would be enough in terms of size.
And note that even if you perfectly match the speaker size to the room size there is still need for acoustic treatment.
Bass port considerations
Another issue with the room and where you’ll end up placing the monitors is how close to the wall they will get to sit.
You see, most of the monitors have what is called a bass reflex system. That means the speaker has a vent for air/sound to escape.
Some monitors have that vent on the front while others have it on the back. And here is where problems might occur.
If you place speakers with the bass port on the back, right up against the wall, what will happen is that low frequencies will shoot at the wall and bounce off it amplifying the bass artificially.
In a room that has been properly treated this might not be a great issue but with naked walls, it can be.
In my home studio, I have the monitors pretty close not only to a wall but to the corners of the room where bass tends to gather.
Even with front ported speakers, the effect of being close to the walls is noticeable.
So the idea is that if you don’t have much room behind your monitors it’s best to get speakers that have the port on the front.
Connecting and powering your monitors
One important thing that you will most likely need is an audio interface.
The audio interface is, simply put, a bridge between your PC and other studio equipment like your monitors. Depending on what audio interface you get you can also use it to control the volume of you monitors, record guitars or studio mics, connect headphones, etc.
This device is also the one that should send a balanced signal to your monitors if that is what you want to use. We’ll get to balanced and unbalanced in a bit.
This is also something that you should take into account when budgeting your monitors if you don’t already have one. These guys get very expensive very quickly.
A quick pointer here: don’t get an interface with a ton of mic pre-amps that you are not going to use. Also, don’t buy the cheapest shit you can, it will only cause problems and eventually you’ll still end up paying a bit more for something ok. Been there, done that.
We’ll get more in-depth in audio interfaces in another article.
Alternately you could go for studio control or monitor management systems which are sound interfaces on steroids but the prices are also, generally, a bit higher. At least compared to small interfaces that you usually find in home studios.
These guys usually allow you to connect multiple pairs of monitors and headphones and make things easier to manage generally.
However, monitor management systems don’t always have Phantom power and pre-amps for your mics. So depending on what you get, they might not be suited if you want to record mics or guitars.
It’s best to give a thought to that as well. What do you plan on doing in your studio?
Good monitors won’t save bad acoustics
No matter how good the monitors are, the room in which you use them will have an impact on the sound you’ll work with. Naked walls are especially troublesome as they bounce sound like crazy.
I know most people won’t give a dime on acoustic treatment but this is something to keep in mind. If you want to get good work out of your own home studio you might want to invest a bit into acoustic treatment.
Also, might be worth mentioning, acoustic treatment is not the same as soundproofing. A lot of people confuse the two but they are different things achieved in different ways.
Acoustic treatment is a way of controlling how sound travels, bounces and scatters inside of your studio room while sound proofing deals with sound coming from outside of your studio room and of course sound going outside of the room.
So, what you are looking for in a home studio is acoustic treatment, you want to control the sound so that it doesn’t interfere with your mixing.
What do the specifications mean?
Looking at the specs of different speakers might bring in some confusion and a ton more digging around the webs to learn their meaning so let’s dive in and make it quick.
40Hz – 35kHz
This is the frequency range that the speaker can output. If you understand a spectrum analyzer this is easy to grasp.
If you have a sound that goes beyond those boundaries the speaker cannot output them. And that is about it.
To put that into perspective humans have a hearing range between 20Hz and 20 kHz most sensitive being between 2 kHz and 5 kHz.
Yes, most of the monitors don’t fully cover the human hearing in the low range but that is ok. You should also use a good pair of headphones when mixing to check your low end before you consider it finished.
You could also use a subwoofer, but that can so easily add more problems that it solves that I’m not going to recommend that for a starter.
Good headphones tend to get way under the 20Hz mark so consider grabbing a good pair of headphones as well.
Active vs passive
Any speaker needs amplification to work. A system that has amplification build into it is an active system.
A speaker that doesn’t have built-in amplification is a passive speaker. It’s essentially just the cabinet (the box) with the drivers, a crossover and that’s it.
The crossover, if you are wondering, is the circuit that splits the sound between each driver/tweeter.
Getting passive speakers means that you also have to get an amplifier and there is really no reason to go that route.
You also need to know a bit about audio systems, in general, to get to that sweet spot of mixing and matching the right speakers to the right amp without breaking the bank.
1-way vs 2-ways vs 3-ways
What this means is in how many pieces, or frequency ranges, is your sound split. 1 way means that one driver is going to handle all the frequencies.
A “1-way” example is the Avantone MixCube.
2-ways means that your frequencies are split into two groups, one going to a driver and the other going to a different driver. Most commonly, you will see a twitter handling the high frequencies and a driver handling mid and low frequencies.
3-ways, I guess you figured, the sound is split between twitter for high frequencies, a driver for the mids and one for the low frequencies.
There are some that “break the rules” like the Adam A77X that is a “2 – 1⁄2-way system” but we are not going into that right now.
Bi-amplified is something you will find in the description of some of 2-ways monitors and it means that each driver/tweeter gets its own separate amplifier.
Balanced vs unbalanced connections
You will see this regarding the connections to the monitors and naturally it might bring in some more confusion.
A balanced cable is designed to protect the signal from external interference and cancel noise that might be picked up on the way.
In order to do that both pieces of equipment must be prepared for that type of communication.
In order for this to work the gear that sends the signal basically sends two copies of the signal but they are at 180 degrees out of phase.
The gear that receives the signal must put them back together and in that process the noise picked up gets canceled.
An unbalanced connection is just a regular connection that doesn’t do anything special.
In the case of your monitor setup, if your audio interface can output a balanced signal use that. Most monitors, even less expensive ones, know how to use balanced signals.
That, of course, if you use the connection that is marked as BALANCED / BAL.
Sometimes the label will say BAL / UNBAL meaning that it accepts both.
And also note that you should get balanced cables otherwise the system will not do any noise canceling. Studio monitors don’t usually come with cables so that is up to you.
Pro tip: RCA is not balanced so if you are looking at something that has only RCA connection know that it’s unbalanced. Not need to dig through the specs for this one.
TRS and XLR are balanced most of the time but check to make sure, at least with low-cost monitors. With more expensive speakers you can safely assume that they are balanced.
But is there a problem if you use unbalanced cables?
Not really but it can. Usually, you will get a very noticeable hum in your speakers, especially when they are very close to your computer and you have a mess of cables behind your studio desk.
You’ll hear a lot of people having issues with humming in their speakers and unwanted interference is one of the things causing that.
Other very good options
JBL LSR 305
The 305 is a 5”, compact, portable, studio monitor that draws features from the M2 mastering monitors which are “just” 20,000 USD a pair. Yeah…good selling point actually.
You don’t get $20,000 quality with the LSR 305, obviously, but you get an oddly shaped tweeter horn that makes an impressive stereo field and a wide sweet spot.
They are good for people constantly on the move that want to take “the studio” with them. At least that’s how I see them. They are larger but lighter than their immediate competitors like the KRK Rokit 5” or Presonus Eris E5.
You can learn more about this guy in our full review of the JBL LSR305.
Tannoy Reveal 802
Tannoy is not new by any stretch of the imagination, in fact, they have been around since 1926 and were very popular in music studios in the 70’s.
They aren’t talked about as much as other brands are but they are good for the money and people that have used them extensively love them.
They have a low end that is crisp. detailed and in the right amounts. The sweet spot is pretty large, which allows you to move around and not lose the sense of your sound.
A cool feature that you don’t see on many studio monitors is the ability to plug in auxiliary devices, like your phone. This can be very valuable these days since the phone is basically an extension of ourselves.
What I don’t like about these is that while they have a high-frequency adjustment there is no low-frequency adjustment. For a home studio where low-end problems are common, I would have expected some form of control.
You see by now that choosing a pair of studio monitors is not something to do without some thought put into it.
Not only that but a good setup dollar for the dollar also includes other things besides the speakers themselves and you could cut corners but you are only shooting yourself in the leg.
- try to match the size of the speaker to the size of your room;
- consider what audio interface you want to get;
- consider how you connect the interface to the speakers and get the proper cables – usually neither come with cables;
- consider speaker stands to bring your monitors to ear height in your listening position;
- consider acoustic treatment at least at a minimum – this is important.
With all that in mind, I think you are ready to start looking at some of the best monitors on the market and start formulating your options.
Featured image credits: Reddit user alskadotme