The Truth About Studio Monitors

vintage picture of man with loudspeakerDo you want to know something ironic about home studios?

What you listen to most, is not supposed to sound good.

You’ve heard me.

Your preamp has to be pristine. Your microphone needs to flatter your voice. But what about your studio monitors?

They’re not designed to please the discerning audiophile.

There’s a reason why experts advise against using “ordinary” Hi-Fi loudspeakers for monitoring your audio. These speakers are built to fill a living room and should be listened to at a distance. They come in fancy shapes and exotic wood finishes and are hyped for that full and rich musical sound. Hi-Fi speakers are meant to look and sound pretty.

In contrast, nearfield studio monitors are designed to be placed within a few feet of you in a small room that is close to dead, acoustically speaking. Instead of complementing the source, studio monitors need to be detailed, neutral and reveal problems to the critical listener. If something sounds off, they should let you know.

The difference between a Hi-Fi speaker and a studio monitor is like the difference between a fan and a friend. A fan will flatter you. A friend will tell you the unvarnished truth. That’s probably why most monitors look as sexy as a black brick.

Pro Audio stores will happily sell you a bunch of those bricks, but here’s the question: do you really need them in a simple voice-over setting? Most of us aren’t multi-tracking, music mixing, audio engineering, record producing geniuses.

If you’re like me, you’ll use a bare bones DAW like Twisted Wave and only record your own voice in mono. Does it really make sense to spend good money on a pair of premium-priced Genelecs from Finland, or will some decent headphones suffice?

IN THE EDITING ROOM

Closed or semi-closed cans cut out external noise and will reveal plenty of detail. That’s because you’re experiencing the sound from inside your head without room acoustics messing with it.

I precision-edit all my audio using Beyerdynamic DT 880 headphones. If you’re on a tight budget, start there. Here’s a word of caution, though. It’s very easy to damage your hearing by turning them up too much. Secondly, tight-fitting closed headphones can become uncomfortable after a while. Nobody likes sweaty ears.

I always check my work on active nearfield monitors. They don’t sound too clinical, yet they are like the Spanish Inquisition: very unforgiving.

Studio monitors supplement headphones because they reveal more of the recording spectrum. They also give you another method of tracking your audio in a way that’s close to how some listeners will perceive it.

ARE YOU IN THE MARKET

Now, if you’re shopping for monitors there are a few things you should absolutely ignore:

1. Advertising materials

Every maker will call their latest model “the new standard” or “the next generation” and say that it’s “defining a new reference point in unrivaled performance.” They will tell you their black box will “reveal things you’ve never heard before with amazing clarity, accuracy and detail.” When describing smaller home studio style monitors, all manufacturers proudly proclaim they sound surprisingly similar to larger systems while carrying a smaller price tag.

2. YouTube videos

Type in the name of any model monitor, and watch how many results pop up. It’s astonishing. You’ll discover a strange universe of silly people dedicated to the new art of unboxing boxy things in front of a camera. How informative! Then there are folks who have taken videos of their new speakers playing their favorite tracks while breaking the sound barrier. What is that supposed to prove?

First off, the footage was recorded on a cheap smart phone; the sound and images are heavily compressed and it reaches you through the crappy speakers you’re hoping to replace. How could that ever give you an accurate idea of what speaker X actually sounds like?

3. Online forums populated by pompous Gearheads

You’ll discover that there are a lot of self-styled gurus suffering from gear envy. They swear by two hundred-dollar six-foot speaker cables made out of very precious metals. Anyone who isn’t willing to make that investment simply doesn’t know what he is talking about. Headphones under $1000 are utterly useless. Should you be listening to the latest Sting album on cheap $500 loudspeakers, you’re an idiot who deserves to be spanked with an electric fly swatter.

Now, if you want to have some fun with this bizarre crowd, I dare you to start a discussion about the benefits of coaxial transducers. Within the hour you’ll make weird friends you wouldn’t want to be seen with in public, and even stranger enemies.

4. Reviews in magazines geared toward audio engineers and audiophiles

Unless you’re interested in the advantages of Clas-D biamplification, DSP-based internal processing with high quality ADC, or a time-aligned waveguide that allows for a wide listening area with minimum diffraction, you better skip these articles.

These reviews are mostly written by seasoned mixologists who will assess a studio monitor in their own acoustic environment assuming you’re about to produce the next big hip-hop album. Just listen to their language:

“There’s a nice soft dip in the upper mid-range and slightly forward bass (which makes the monitors more exciting to use), with a pleasing tonality that doesn’t fatigue.”

“The affordable monitor X has a top end that’s open and clear, and there’s plenty of transient snap.”

“Hexacone woofer-cone construction has been used in previous models, and comprises a Nomex honeycomb sandwiched between layers of Kevlar.”

Now, if that doesn’t turn you on, I wonder what will?

BUYING THE BEST

So, get this. One Cyber Monday I got myself an early Christmas present: a nice pair of studio monitors.

How did I pick them?

Of course I should have taken my favorite audio track to a listening room at a pro audio dealer where I could compare dozens of monitors on a rainy afternoon.

But what did I do instead?

I read as many brochures as I could get my hands on. Once I had narrowed my choice down, I watched every video on YouTube, and I visited the main gearhead forums. Then I studied every online review meticulously. And when Paul White of the British Sound-On-Sound magazine wrote the following, I knew I had found a winner:

“Everything came over smoothly yet with plenty of detail; vocals sounded absolutely pristine, and though the bass lacked the depth of a larger monitor it still managed to sound tight and solid. (…) I’ve heard speakers costing twice as much that don’t deliver such ‘adult’ results.”

Presonus Eris 5 studio monitorHe was referring to the Persons Eris 5, which I picked up for $114 a piece (they now sell for $149 each).

Then I unboxed my treasures without a camera in sight, and put them on the monitor stands in my studio.

And what do they sound like, you may ask…

Well, how shall I put it?

“They reveal things you’ve never heard before with amazing clarity, accuracy and detail. They sound surprisingly similar to larger systems while carrying a smaller price tag. Presonus is definitely defining a new reference point in unrivaled performance…”

Okay, you may spank me with an electric fly swatter!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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photo credit: Nesster via photopin cc

About the author

Paul Strikwerda

is a Dutch-English voice-over pro, coach, and writer. His blog is one of the most widely read and influential blogs in the industry. Paul is also the author of "Making Money In Your PJs, Freelancing for voice-overs and other solopreneurs." goo.gl/ihVpMc

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Gear, Studio
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