One of the first things that most people consider is the cost—a good pair of powered monitors can range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars. How much do you need to spend, to get something that will serve all the needs of a professional studio (whether it’s a commercial facility or a serious home studio / project room)? Well, the good new is, nowadays, if you shop carefully, and do your due diligence (in terms of researching and auditioning prospective models), you can get an excellent set of speakers at just about any price point within that range. So it comes down to the more important considerations—sound, performance, and suitability.
2. The World is Flat (or at least your speakers should be)
If you were just choosing speakers for your personal listening pleasure, then whatever gets you up and dancing around the room is fine. But if you’ll be using your new monitors to make critical decisions about recording levels, mic positions, mix balance and EQ, and maybe even mastering processing, then what you need is accuracy, above all else. The monitors need to have a neutral response, not make everything played through them sound better, or brighter, or punchier—if they make everything sound good, then how will you know when a project you’re recording/mixing for others to hear won’t sound good on all the other systems it’ll be played on? The only way to make those decisions with confidence is for your monitors to present the sound of the recording/mix-in-progress as is—warts and all—so you can use that information to make decisions and implement mix moves and fixes that will translate to any other playback system.
Most monitors intended for (serious) studio use are designed to have an appropriately neutral, flat response, but in the real world there’s really no such thing as a truly flat speaker. Every model will have its own subtle coloration, and you need to choose a pair that, while still being acceptably neutral, has an overall tonal balance that you’re comfortable with. Otherwise, you may find yourself subconsciously mixing and EQing to compensate for some aspect of the speaker’s sound that you just don’t care for, rather than to correct actual flaws in the audio that need to be addressed.
3. Look Around
Even if you find a pair of monitors with an overall tonal balance you’re comfortable with, the room you’ll be using them in will have a potentially strong affect on what you actually hear. Room resonances in the low-frequency range (Standing Waves or Room Modes) will cause the bass to be uneven at different locations in the room, and reflective surfaces—if there are too many, or they’re in problematic locations—can cloud the sound with comb-filtering (nasal or phasey tone from interference). Room treatments are usually called for, but that would be the subject of another article. However, they should be taken into consideration in terms of choosing a speaker design that’s appropriate for the environment.
Many monitors are designed to be used in free-field, or free-space, placements—that is, they need to be placed at least two or three feet from the nearest room boundaries (walls, floor) to achieve their intended (flat) response—especially in the bass range—in actual practice. If that’s not possible, many models have rear-panel switches that compensate for wall or even corner placement—if that’s a necessity in your studio space, make sure you choose a monitor that allows for this, and be sure to set those options appropriately.
If you’re stuck working in a room with potentially problematic reflections (large windows, or a reflective ceiling), you might want to look at monitors with a narrower dispersion (for the highs and mids), rather than one that sends those frequencies out in a wider pattern—more limited dispersion will minimize the amount of reflected sound that might cause problematic interference.
4. The Low-Down
Bass response is always a consideration. We all enjoy good strong low-end response, but if it’s too much or too little, this will result in decisions when it comes to low-frequency EQ that won’t “travel” well—you may hear just the amount of bass you want in your own studio, but others (again, on other systems) will hear either too much (tubby sound) or too little (thin sound). As a matter of physics, a speaker’s bass response is a tradeoff between low-frequency extension (how low does it go), sensitivity (how loud can it play), and size. If you want deeper bass and loud playback, you’ll need a bigger cabinet. If you need deeper bass but smaller size, you’ll need to sacrifice volume. And if you need loud and small, you’ll simply have top accept less low end.
Different designs can help a bit with this formula. Ported speakers (the ones with a hole, which channels low frequencies), can provide deeper bass, all other considerations (size and volume) being equal. Placement comes into play here as well—the port may be on the front or back, and may require wall placement (or not!) to achieve the promised extra lows. So once again, you have to factor in all the relevant considerations, to make the best choice.
If you’re producing music, you don’t necessarily need to have the deepest bass response—even desktop monitors with 5” or 6” woofers will do fine, despite the lack of the very lowest octave of bass. As long as you’re used to them—you know what well-produced commercial tracks sound like on them, and you shoot for that balance—you should do fine. But if you’re working in a genre where the music is likely to be heard on systems with really deep bass (i.e. subwoofers), then you’ll need to know what’s actually down there there in your productions, and that means either a larger woofer/cabinet (8”-10”+), or augmenting a smaller pair with a sub of your own (being careful to balance it properly against the satellites!).
5. Safety in Numbers
Even if you succeed in finding a pair of monitors that meets all the requirements on your checklist—acceptably flat, but with a tonal balance you like; appropriate low-end for your needs, suitable design for your room/placement requirements—your job may still not be done. While it’s important to have—and use—that neutral monitor system to actually record, mix, and master your music, as we all know many people do much of their music listening on less ideal systems—earbuds, headphones, computer speakers, crappy hifi bookshelf speakers, car stereo speakers. Unless you’re making music purely for your own private listening pleasure, you’ll want to know that your mixes and masters sound good not only on proper, flat monitor-type speakers, but also on all those somewhat more...er...compromised systems as well. Your best bet is to have multiple speakers available, to audition your work on a variety of representative potential playback systems, so you can be sure it’ll translate acceptably whatever the medium.
While you’ll primarily monitor with your main speakers, you’ll want to check your work periodically on whatever other systems you have at hand, which should include at least headphones/earbuds and a pair of limited-bandwidth computer-type speakers, and, ideally, any hifi speakers you can dig up, including, if possible, a system with a sub, for those listeners who play everything through their home theater rigs.
So keep all this in mind the next time you find yourself standing in your local store, auditioning monitors. When you do that, bring familiar material, make sure the speakers you’re comparing are placed in equivalent positions in the room, and don’t let the sales guy seduce you by cranking up the pair he gets the biggest commission on. Take your time, and listen carefully—as I said, a well-chosen pair of monitors has the potential to help all your productions sound significantly better, which is the real bottom line.