Studio Monitor Buying Guide
Active vs. Passive Monitors
While there is a vast array of active studio monitors to choose from these days, it’s worth noting that the recording industry grew up with passive monitors. Because one type isn’t completely superior to the other, it’s important to understand the differences.
Passive monitoring systems are modular in nature, requiring you to match your speakers with an appropriate amplifier and crossover. The main advantage to this is that, if you have a power amplifier that you you trust for accurate performance, you can use it to drive your monitor system.
Active monitors have their amplifiers built in. This presents a few benefits, such as not having to deal with extra rack gear and knowing that the internal amplifier is specifically matched to that speaker for the best sonic performance. Countless professional studios worldwide rely on active systems with no regrets. Unless you already have a specific reason to prefer a passive system, you’ll probably appreciate both the convenience and performance you get from an active studio monitoring system.
Different Driver Types and Why They Matter
You’ll find all types of speaker construction materials out there, from paper to Kevlar to aluminum alloys and beyond. Manufacturers are constantly innovating, and if you’re interested, there are plenty of resources available about the properties of different materials. But step back for a moment. Do you really care what it’s made of at the end of the day?
Materials play a big part in the sound of a speaker, but would you really buy studio monitors based on one specific material used in its construction? While we fully acknowledge the huge impact speaker driver materials have on its sound, you can quickly confuse your research if you focus on materials instead of application-specific benefits.
Cabinet Considerations: Ported or Closed?
You’ll find that many smaller studio monitors, and quite a few larger ones too, have a ported cabinet that helps extend the frequency response lower for more bass. While this can be beneficial, the sonic accuracy of ported cabinets may not be as precise as closed cabinets. This behavior is exaggerated if the ports are on the back of the speakers and placed too close to a wall. If you can’t avoid putting your studio monitors close to walls or corners, you may want to choose front-ported or closed designs for more accurate monitoring.
EQ, Room Correction, and Other Features
Many studio monitor features have some type of EQ built into them to help you tune them to your room. Some even have digital processing that can optimize their performance for your acoustic space. While these are helpful features, it’s important to remember that you can’t cheat physics. EQ and room correction DSP can help make the most out of a bad-sounding room and make a room with good acoustics sound great. Ultimately, no set of speakers can make up for uncontrolled acoustics in your control room. Check out Sweetwater’s Acoustic Treatment Buying Guide to learn more.
What to Look For…
We’ve covered most of the basic considerations when searching for new studio monitor speakers. Much of your research from now on will be determined largely by what type of work you’re doing in your studio. Here are just a few more points to keep in mind:
The size of your speakers should be appropriate for the size of your room. If you’re mixing in a small space, then you’ll get much more accurate results with smaller monitors.
Remember that technically speaking, studio monitors aren’t trying to sound good. They’re trying to sound as accurate and precise as possible. The ideal set of studio monitors should reveal every detail in your mix, both good and bad, while portraying an accurate balance across the entire frequency range.
Keep in mind that it’s almost impossible to tell how a set of studio monitors will sound in your room. Even if you invest time in auditioning a set at a store or a friend’s studio, the acoustics of your room play a huge role in what you’ll hear when you’re mixing. You can make note of certain characteristics, but don’t expect them to sound exactly the same.
If you’re serious about your choice of studio monitors, you should also be serious about controlling the acoustics in your room. If you’re just starting out, we highly recommend setting aside some of your budget for some basic absorbent acoustic treatment. You’ll hear more of your speakers and less of your room’s reflections. Check out our Acoustic Treatment Buying Guide to learn more.