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What are studio monitors, and why not just use regular speakers?

If you are setting up your first home studio, you might be thinking, what are monitor speakers? If that’s the case, don’t worry, you are not alone.

In most ways, monitor speakers can look just like regular speakers, which adds to the confusion.

In simple terms, studio monitors are like speakers that don’t sugarcoat anything; they let you hear the bad in all its glory.

Regular speakers are designed to make everything sound the best it can, regardless of the room or format, and that’s why they aren’t good for critical listening in a studio.

what are studio monitors
Image: Higher Hz

What is a monitor speaker?

We covered this briefly in the intro; now, let’s take a closer look at the question, what is a monitor speaker?

When people talk about studio monitors, they often talk about them having a flat response. Some high-end producers and engineers will tell you that there’s never a truly flat response, but it’s the aim at the studio stage. So, the first thing you should understand is what a flat response actually means.

A flat frequency response from your studio monitors means that the sound you hear is unchanged from the original source.

The original source is the sound captured by your microphone or interface, mixing desk, etc.

How you hear a sound depends on your position in the room. So, when you record with a microphone, the sound captured depends on the microphone position, etc. In that situation, it’s hard to hear something through monitors exactly as you heard it in the room.

But, as a more straightforward example, think of a synth being recorded directly into an interface. How your interface records sound from the synth is what you will hear come out of the monitors.

At least, that’s the idea of a flat response. In other words, the monitors will do nothing to attenuate or boost frequencies artificially. They won’t do anything to mask or hide anything that sounds bad.

Why is that so important?

As a producer or mix engineer, you have to hear everything as pure as possible. It’s what allows you to make the best decisions in your project.

If you have regular speakers that are particularly weak in the bass frequencies, you might counter that by massively boosting the bass. But, while you think you’ve made a great mix and release it, someone else will listen to it on speakers with great bass, and unfortunately, the bass is all they will hear!

We want to really drum that home; it’s about hearing the most accurate representation of the original sound source.

Studio monitors vs regular speakers

What’s the difference between studio monitors and regular speakers?

Again, we touched on this at the start, and that’s the most important thing for you to remember; monitors don’t sugarcoat anything; regular speakers do.

But, let’s look at the more technical difference between the two.

Active or passive

Active speakers, often referred to as powered speakers, need to plug into the mains; passive speakers do not. However, that’s not the important difference between the two. Active speakers have built-in amplifiers, while passive speakers need to be powered by a separate amplifier.

For more information, check out this article: Active, powered, and passive speakers: What’s the difference?

Studio monitors are usually active, and regular hi-fi speakers tend to be passive, although there are exceptions. To keep things simple for now, let’s work on the example of studio monitors being active and regular speakers being passive.

Imagine you have two speakers that look identical on the outside; same cabinet, same woofer, and same tweeter.

If you aren’t familiar with those terms yet, the woofer is the large cone that deals with bass and midrange frequencies, while the smaller tweeter deals with high frequencies. Some speakers have a third driver along with the woofer and tweeter that handles the midrange.

So, in both the active and passive speakers, one of the most important things you need to understand is crossover. It’s how the speaker makes sure the right frequencies go to the right drivers.

With the passive speaker, the high-level signal driving the speaker will come from an external amplifier, and passive components within the speaker will split the signal into frequency bands for each driver.

On the other hand, active speakers don’t rely on an external amplifier, as we said above. Furthermore, active speakers tend to have built-in power amps for each driver. What that does is provides far more detailed crossover and enhanced clarity across the entire frequency range.

The more sophisticated crossover means more components and more expense, which is a slight drawback of active speakers.

While it seems clear that active speakers have more to offer in a studio setting, it should be said that passive speakers still have their place. Passive speakers give you the opportunity to mix and match speakers with different amplifiers, and that appeals to many people. Although, it’s more popular in the hi-fi enthusiast world than the studio world.

Directional and non-directional

If we go back to an earlier example where we mentioned how you hear a sound depends on your position in the room, the same applies to directional monitors.

Directional means that there is a clear line of sound in the direction that the monitor is facing.

The most common studio monitors are directional, and that’s why people make such a fuss about positioning them correctly to find that sweet spot. If you aren’t used to listening through studio monitors, you should try moving in and out of the sweet spot to get an idea of how much it affects the sound.

Regular speaks are non-directional, and that’s a very important part of how they try to make everything sound good. Non-directional speakers are designed to fill the room with sound, delivering a much more consistent sound no matter what your position is.

Nearfield monitors

Another term that you will often hear as you get more into studio gear is nearfield monitors. It means exactly what you’d think; close to the listener.

What you get with nearfield monitors is a more immediate sound. It limits any opportunity for natural reverberations and any other issues that might come from your room.

Most of the time, when you speak about studio monitors, you’ll be talking about nearfield monitors, especially for home studios.

You do get midfield and far-field speakers, too. Although, as I said, it’s unlikely that those will come into play in a home studio setting, unless you have a huge space!

Farfield speakers are non-directional, which means you can consider regular speakers as farfield. Positioning is far less important with far-field speakers, as they are intended to fill the room from almost anywhere.

As a general rule, you can follow these guidelines:

  • Nearfield speakers – A few feet away
  • Midfield speakers – A few meters away
  • Farfield speakers – Anywhere in the room (within the realms of common sense)

Positioning your monitor speakers

We will work on the assumption that you are dealing with nearfield monitors.

Ultimately, you can position your monitors wherever you think gives you the best listening experience. But, there are some general guidelines that will keep you on the right track.

studio monitor speaker
Image: Higher Hz

1. Walls and corners

Generally speaking, you should try to keep your monitor speakers around 12 inches away from the wall.

The obvious benefit is that you have easy access to the back panels when needed, but the main reason is to avoid unwanted reflections. Being too close to the wall can create phase cancellation issues and a range of other acoustic problems.

Sometimes it’s hard to avoid being in a corner, especially if you have a small space, so don’t worry if it’s not possible. But, if you can, you should avoid putting your desk in a corner to limit the chance of bass build-ups between the two surfaces.

2. Vertical or horizontal

If you are about to buy some studio monitors, you’ve probably seen YouTube videos with monitors on stands sideways. It can look cool, and you might be tempted to do the same, but not all monitors are built to sit on their side.

If your monitors aren’t intended to sit horizontally, doing so will degrade the stereo image, often significantly.

Before you place your monitors, you should always check with the manufacturers’ guidelines. There are some cases where manufacturers don’t suggest sitting monitors horizontally, but it can still work well. Just keep in mind, it can often do more hard than good, so be careful.

If you do decide to sit your monitors sideways, make sure the tweeters are on the outside on each to create a mirror image.

3. The sweet spot (triangle)

Creating the sweet spot shouldn’t be too difficult. Basically, all you want to do is to form an equilateral triangle between yourself and your speakers.

Put your speakers on your desk and start to angle them inwards, imagining a straight line coming from each speaker. The point where they meet in the middle is your sweet spot, and that’s where you should be sitting. This middle position between your left and right speaker is where the stereo image is best.

Depending on your setup, it might not be possible to form an equilateral triangle with the same distance between the speakers and yourself. Get as close as you can, and you’ll be doing well.

4. Monitor height

We know by this point that studio monitors are directional, but you should also know that high-frequency content is more directional than bass content.

The simple tip is to position your monitors so that the tweeters are level with your ears.

There are a few reasons that this might not be possible; the size of the desk and speakers, etc. One of the potential fixes for this is to turn your monitors sideways, as we discussed above (when suitable). It’s also possible to turn your monitors upside down so that the tweeters are on the bottom if you need to.

5. Create symmetry

Ideally, if you managed to avoid corners, your desk will be in the center of a wall. It will provide a far more balanced listening experience.

When you place your monitor speakers on the desk, you want them to be the same distance from the side walls on each side. A simple tip, but it will deliver far more reliable and accurate low-end performance.

6. Speaker stands

You might be thinking that you don’t need speaker stands if they are sitting on your desk. However, sitting your studio monitors on any hard reflective surface can degrade their performance.

Before the sound reaches your ears, sound waves will bounce off any reflective surface that you allow them to. The monitors will also transmit vibrations on your desktop that can create unwanted noise or even cause screws to rattle.

As well as preventing any unwanted vibrations/reflections, a good set of stands can help get the perfect height in line with your ears.

Studio monitor stands can be relatively expensive, especially if you are just starting out, but if you shop around, there are good cheap options. If stands aren’t an option, then you should consider some isolation pads as a more affordable alternative.

Can I use home stereo speakers in my studio?

You can see the differences that we have pointed out between monitor speakers and regular speakers. The differences give you a clear indication that it’s best to use studio monitors over standard hi-fi speakers.

With everything in music, there are no rules, none that you should ever place above creative freedom anyway.

So, with that being said, if you don’t have the budget to buy studio monitors yet, then home stereo speakers are better than nothing.

After all, it’s better to be making music than not making music, but it comes with a few conditions.

If you are setting up your studio, monitors should be one of your first purchases. But, in the real world, money can be tight, and maybe buying a computer and a controller has maxed out your budget for now. In that situation, using regular speakers can be a viable option.

The first condition is that we would strongly recommend that it isn’t a long-term solution.

The second condition is that you must be mindful of the limitations of using regular speakers. If you aren’t getting a truly accurate representation of your music, you can’t mix it accurately. So, it would be a good idea to pass your music on to someone else for mixing after the production is done.

Another option is to simply use headphones until you get studio monitors, but that offers up some different limitations.

Do regular speakers have any value in the studio?

Yes, they do.

While we wouldn’t recommend that you produce, mix, or master music with regular speakers, they still serve a purpose.

Listening through regular speakers gives you a better understanding of what most listeners will hear when you release your music.

Yamaha makes some awesome studio monitors, but one of their most famous speakers is the NS-10. The Yamaha NS-10s were widely regarded as terrible speakers, but they became something of a cult classic.

They were introduced in the 1970s, and to this day, producers and engineers keep them around their studios. The reason they do this is that it gives them the chance to listen to their mix on poor home speakers.

Remember, the average listener doesn’t have fancy speakers. If you finish your mix, it sounds right on your monitors, and it sounds good on some NS-10s, then you’ve done well.

For that reason, it’s not a bad idea to have some regular speakers around. You should get used to critical listening, and this can extend to smartphones, tablets, laptops, etc. People listen to music on multiple playback formats; it’s good to cover all of your bases.

Conclusion

Hopefully, we have given you a better understanding of what monitor speakers are and the difference between studio monitors and regular speakers.

The relationship that you have with your studio monitors will be one of the most important aspects of your music-making.

Choose wisely and use our tips to position your monitors for the best performance. Whether you have $100 monitors or $5,000 monitors, it’s worth taking the time to set up properly and get the best out of them and your room.

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