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Studio monitors vs regular speakers: What’s the difference?

Whether you’re setting up your first recording studio, home theater or hi-fi system, you’ll probably have to do some research on the best speakers that can help you create the perfect environment for your creativity or entertainment.

That’s when you’ll come across the terms “studio monitor” and “hi-fi speaker” and wonder: aren’t they the same thing?

Although aesthetically almost identical, these two types of speakers serve totally different purposes, and getting the wrong one for your needs can be a critical and expensive mistake.

In this article, I’ll discuss the main differences between studio monitors and regular speakers and identify which one you should get based on what you need.

While there are no golden rules in the world of audio, getting the right speaker means starting your music journey on the right foot, so I’ll try to clarify as many doubts as possible in the following sections.

About me

Marco Sebastiano Alessi, writer at Higher Hz

I’m a music producer, audio engineer, and audiophile. Since my professional career started over a decade ago, I’ve owned and used a plethora of speakers, whether for music production, critical, or casual listening sessions.

As a result, I learned to discern the differences between every type of speaker, and I know precisely what speaker to use depending on my needs.

With this article, I aim to share with you my knowledge and personal experiences so that you can make a conscious decision when buying music gear.

Contents

Use these links below to navigate to the desired section of the article.

What are hi-fi speakers?

Hi-fi speakers (also called loudspeakers, consumer speakers, or simply regular speakers) are speakers designed for entertainment.

As such, they offer a more pleasant listening experience, with coloration and frequency enhancement to make the sound as immersive as possible.

Bowers & Wilkins 606 S3 bookshelf speaker
B&W 606 S3 hi-fi speaker | Image: Bowers Wilkins

They’re forgiving when it comes to room placement, they all have their own sound signature you may love or hate, and usually require an external amplifier (more on that later).

All in all, their goal is to make any music sound good.

What are studio monitors?

Studio monitors are speakers designed specifically for music production, and their aim is to provide you with a frequency response that’s as accurate as possible.

Simply put, they make music sound precisely as it did when it was recorded.

Adam Audio A4V studio monitor
Adam Audio A4V studio monitor | Image: Higher Hz

They’re unforgiving when it comes to room placement, and have a narrow sweet spot beyond which the sound gets muddy and unclear.

They must provide a flat frequency response so you can make accurate decisions when mixing and mastering tracks.

All in all, they’re designed to make your music sound bad.

What’s the difference?

Let me reiterate this: regular speakers are for entertainment, and studio monitors are for audio content creation.

The former aim to make polished music sound as pleasant as possible in most listening circumstances, whereas the latter are for analytical decision-making during the audio post-production phase.

There are certain blurred boundaries. The Yamaha NS-10 was originally marketed as a hi-fi speaker, only to become one of the most popular studio monitors in the 80s and 90s.

Those are exceptions, and as I said earlier, nothing prevents you from using a regular speaker in a recording studio, but using the right tool for the task will go a long way, especially in the early stages of your music journey.

Different types of studio monitors

The world of music production is complex and filled with similarly identical pieces of gear that serve totally different purposes, and the field of studio monitors is no exception.

There are four main distinctions when it comes to studio monitors: they can be active or passive, and they can be near-field or far-field.

Active monitors come with a built-in power amplifier and use an active crossover, meaning that all you have to do is plug them in and connect them to your audio source.

PMC Result6 front and rear views
An active studio monitor with built-in amplification | Image: Higher Hz

This doesn’t just make setup simpler but also avoids any sort of interference that may occur when multiple separate components interact with each other.

On the other hand, passive speakers rely on an external amplifier to receive power and process the audio signal, and use passive crossovers to split the signal into different frequency bands.

This makes them more affordable (although you’ll need extra gear to make them work) and, most of all, more customizable, which is crucial if you’re an audiophile looking for a unique sound signature.

Naim Uniti Nova with a speaker
A passive speaker with an external amplifier | Image: Naim Audio

Near-field and far-field monitors are both types of speakers designed for critical listening in the recording studio.

Near-field monitors are for smaller rooms and close-range listening (around 4 feet), while far-field monitors are for larger spaces, have larger drives, and should be placed further away from the audio engineer (roughly 10 feet away).

These two types of studio monitors interact with the room acoustics in totally different ways, which is why most professional recording studios have both in their post-production rooms.

If you make music in your house, chances are you don’t have space for far-field monitors, and that’s fine. You definitely can do without them, but professional recording studios do use them to recreate a full-range listening experience in the post-production room.

Studio monitors vs speakers: Toe to toe

Now that we have clarified the most important difference between the two types of speakers, let’s focus on all aspects that define their quality and compare studio monitors and loudspeakers to get a better understanding of their best purposes.

Design and construction

From a construction point of view, the main difference between the two types of speakers is undoubtedly the active/passive design. Studio monitors tend to be active, whereas hi-fi speakers are generally passive.

However, that’s not an axiom: you can find plenty of great active hi-fi speakers (like the KEF LS50 Wireless II) as well as high-end passive monitor speakers (like the ones produced by Amphion and Avantone).

Frequency response

The biggest difference is right here. Studio monitors offer a flat frequency response, providing the listener with an untouched soundstage they can use to mix and master unfinished songs.

On the other hand, each hi-fi speaker comes with a carefully crafted sonic palette designed to make music more enjoyable to the listener.

They might do this by enhancing lower frequencies to make songs more energetic or by creating a wider soundstage to make music more immersive and expansive.

stand-mounted LS50 Meta in hi-fi setup
Stand-mounted LS50 Meta in a hi-fi setup | Image: KEF

Whichever formula the manufacturer goes for, the result is a sound with a certain level of coloration that makes it more interesting.

Some opt for a near-transparent frequency response, whereas others have a warm, analog-like effect reminiscent of bygone eras.

Studio monitors are not supposed to make music pleasant but rather give you a precise overview of how the song sounds without any enhancement or coloration. And the difference can be pretty big!

Sound quality

It’s hard to talk about sound quality without getting too philosophical. Personally, I love transparency in music reproduction. I want to hear the music as the artists intended it to sound like when they first recorded it.

However, that’s just the way I listen to music, and I’ve also tested plenty of more colorful hi-fi speakers I ended up loving, like the Elac Debut 2.0 B5.2.

Elac Debut 2.0 B5.2 with speaker stand
Debut 2.0 B5.2 hi-fi speaker | Image: Elac

So, here’s my short answer to a rather subjective topic: if you can, use studio monitors for music production use only, and hi-fi speakers for music listening sessions only.

If you’re a music producer and listener and can’t afford both, get a pair of studio monitors, as having hi-fi speakers to mix music is a big risk.

That said, you’re the ultimate judge, so whatever sounds good to your ears, it’s good enough.

Connectivity and compatibility

Being generally active speakers, studio monitors are as straightforward as they can be: all you have to do is plug them into your PC, audio interface, or mixer, and you’re ready to go.

Studio monitors come with one or a combination of balanced XLR, balanced TRS, and unbalanced RCA inputs.

inputs and controls on a studio monitor
Inputs and controls on a studio monitor | Image: Higher Hz

Hi-fi speakers, most of which are passive, require an external amplifier to work, which means you’ll need to choose multiple pieces of gear to make your audio system work.

Placement and acoustics

Studio monitors have a very narrow sweet spot, and should be placed in an equilateral triangle with the listening position, with the tweeters at ear level.

The distance between you and the speaker depends on its size and power, but it’s usually something between three to five feet.

Hi-fi speakers are much easier to place as they have a larger sweet spot and are less directional.

With regular speakers, you might lose on sound transparency, but you’ll definitely gain on enjoyment and versatility.

Price

The prices of both studio monitors and hi-fi speakers can vary immensely.

You can get both types of speakers for around $100 (see the Neumi BS5 or the PreSonus Eris 3.5), or you can spend thousands of dollars on high-end speakers.

Over the last few years, with the increasing interest in high-fidelity audio and home music production, we’ve seen an increase in affordable studio monitors and regular speakers, but the same goes for cutting-edge, extremely expensive gear, like the $150k Focal Grande Utopia EM EVO. Options are endless.

Frequently asked questions

Since the first issue of this article in December 2020, we have consistently received questions about studio monitors and how they compare to regular speakers.

I’ve compiled these questions, and in this section, you will find the answers to the most frequently asked ones.

Why do studio monitors have a flat frequency response?

Sound engineers and music producers need to hear the audio recording as it truly sounds, without any sort of coloration, because that’s the only way they can make accurate frequency adjustments and bring to life music that’ll sound well in all playback systems.

What is the advantage of having multiple drivers in studio monitors?

A studio monitor with multiple drivers means that different frequencies are reproduced by a dedicated driver: the woofer will handle the low end, the tweeter the high frequencies, and when available, the midrange driver will handle (guess what) the midrange frequencies.

This configuration will result in better accuracy across the spectrum.

Do I need an amplifier for studio monitors?

You only need an amplifier for passive studio monitors. Active studio monitors don’t need them as they have built-in amplifiers.

Can I use studio monitors for casual listening?

You can use studio monitors for casual listening, but chances are you’ll find the flat frequency response tiring in the long run.

Can I use studio monitors as bookshelf speakers?

You can use studio monitors as bookshelf speakers, but the flat frequency response and narrow sweet spot make them quite unsuitable for the task.

Can I use studio monitors for home theater setups?

You can use your studio monitors for your home theater, but it’s not what they’re designed for, with a neutral frequency and narrow sweet spot that makes them hard to use in a home entertainment setup.

Can I DJ with studio monitors?

Yes, you can DJ with studio monitors at home and for working on your sets. For live performances, PA speakers are the best option.

Do I need a subwoofer with my studio monitors?

A subwoofer helps you handle bass frequencies, so it’s useful if you’re mixing audio with plenty of low end. However, for most genres, a pair of studio monitors and headphones will be enough.

How do studio monitors compare to headphones for mixing?

The best option is to use both when mixing and mastering music. Studio monitors provide you with a more accurate sense of space and depth, whereas headphones are great for spotting subtle frequency issues in your mix.

Is it possible to have a good mix without studio monitors?

It is definitely possible to mix just with headphones, but it’s not ideal. Guesswork shouldn’t be involved in the mixing process, and not knowing how your song will sound on speakers is a big risk.

Can studio monitors improve the quality of my recordings?

Absolutely. You’ll be able to make better decisions when mixing and mastering music, and you won’t tire your ears by constantly using headphones.

How many studio monitors do I need?

You need a pair of studio monitors for stereo mixing. If you’re mixing and mastering in surround sound, you’ll need as many as you’re planning to have in the soundstage, so probably five speakers and one subwoofer.

Is it necessary to calibrate studio monitors, and how do I do it?

Calibrating studio monitors is crucial if you want to create good mixes.

  1. Start by adjusting the output levels to match the reference level, making sure the speakers are positioned correctly.
  2. Next come monitor balancing and frequency response checks, which you can monitor through an SPL (sound pressure level) meter.
  3. Finally, your room might require acoustic treatment to reach the perfect sound, so make sure there aren’t any acoustic anomalies.

Should I break in speakers and studio monitors before using them?

Yes, it’s always good practice to break in speakers and studio monitors as it’ll enhance low and mid frequencies.

Drivers are like muscles and playing them at loud volumes will make them “loosen up.”

Is it OK to put studio monitors on their side, and why do some do it?

You shouldn’t put studio monitors on their side (unless they’re designed that way), as that’s not how they’re intended to be mounted.

Some people do it because speakers occupy less space when placed horizontally, or just because they think it looks cooler.

However, the misalignment between drivers and your ears can have a big impact on how you hear sounds.

What is the 38% rule for studio monitors?

The 38% rule means your listening position should be at 38% of the room’s length away from the front wall. This is to minimize acoustic issues and enhance the monitors’ accuracy.

How long do studio monitors typically last?

Studio monitors can last decades, as long as you take care of them. Clean them regularly, check the wires and cables, and play them loud every now and then!

Final thoughts

And that’s all there is to know about studio monitors and regular speakers.

I hope this guide will help you make a conscious decision when buying a new pair of speakers that fits your needs.

Don’t forget to let me know about your personal experience in the comment section below. I’m always happy to be proven wrong.

Have fun!

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