Seeing that your final product is up to snuff requires several components. A well-engineered song, a good mix, a great master – but what makes most of this possible is a solid pair of studio monitors.
Whether they be inexpensive or some several thousands of dollars, accurate monitors are essential when it comes to making sure your music sounds good on any and every system.
We’ve reviewed a bunch of them to help you find the ones that best suit you.
Review by brand
How do we rate studio monitors?
There are all but three factors that are important to be considered when reviewing a studio monitor: its power and frequency response, build quality, and its I/O and controls.
For the most part, build quality and I/O and controls fall to the wayside in favor of power and frequency response. Why? Well, it’s not hard to build a monitor with decent routing options and sound adjustments.
Does it have both balanced XLR and TRS inputs? Does it have any controls for room attenuation? Do the inputs feel secure? Does the speaker cabinet resonate when you tap it?
These are normally well accounted for, and it’s the bare minimum of what one can expect from any piece of gear. If it fails to deliver on any of these, normally that’s a sign for an imminent low-rating.
In the same breath, if the build of the monitor seems lackluster, we try to see if this was done for a good reason.
Was the manufacturer trying to make a phenomenal speaker more affordable? Trying to bring the technology of professional grade studios to bedroom producers for a low price?
While it doesn’t make quality any less important to us, the trade-off can be more understandable if the final product’s performance makes up for any superficial inconsistencies or shoddy craftsmanship. Context is important.
So, why is the power and frequency response more significant to us? Well, this is the meat and potatoes of what makes a monitor truly good or bad.
In an ideal world, a studio monitor will have a frequency response appropriate for the size of its woofer. You can normally expect about 45 Hz – 20 kHz from a 5-inch woofer, with the roll-off getting closer and closer to 20 Hz – 30 Hz the larger you go. Anything wider is simply a blessing. What’s more eye-opening is the response curve, which should be near flat.
This is rarely the case, however, so then it becomes a question of how the dips and peaks along the monitor’s response colors the sound reproduction – whether that be to a negative or positive effect.
If a pair of monitors, let’s say, showcase a huge dip of -10 dB from 600 Hz – 10 kHz (a.k.a. the general area where the human voice is most prominent), this is simply unacceptable. It may be impeccably built, with a thousand features, ensured to last you the next hundred years – but we would never recommend a speaker that kills off the entire midrange of your music.
A monitor should be transparent, and honest about the sound that comes through it. Anything different will skew your perception, and will make your life a whole lot more difficult when you have to constantly be A/B-ing your work against more trustworthy speakers.
Why buy a pair of monitors at all if they can’t be trusted to do the job they were built to do? The ideal speaker should let things that sound bad in a mix sound bad, and what sounds good sound good.
The caveat, of course, is that sometimes people oftentimes seek out monitors that make the bad parts of a mix sound even worse. Such as the case of the legendary NS-10s, which sound absolutely horrid. But herein lies one of many exceptions, where the weaknesses of a speaker are made up for given the right intentions.
The opposite scenario is less viable, because a bad sounding song is still a bad sounding song if it only sounds great on one pair of monitors.
So, to wrap things up, context is important. There will always be trade-offs, and while some may come close, no monitor is truly perfect. The goal is to find you a pair of monitors that you can not only afford, but will give you the best bang for your buck.
Sometimes that means buying a cheap monitor you’ve never heard of that looks ugly and is made almost entirely of plastic, but for some reason or other, performs better than any other.
That’s what our reviews are about – function over aesthetics, music over manufacturers, and transparency over hype.