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What is a Studio Monitor? – A Professional’s Tool

If you are in the process of learning more about music production, then you must have heard about studio monitors. But do you know how important these devices are in the world of audio? If you are serious about starting your very own studio for professional audio productions, then you first need to ask yourself – What is a Studio Monitor?

People who are not very familiar with professional audio equipment will usually have many questions about the subject of today’s article. If you are one of them, don’t worry, as we will be going through the characteristics of a studio monitor, and learn more about the crucial role they play in audio productions. Ready to learn? Me too!

Introduction – A Vital Tool

Studio monitors are essentially loudspeakers that are designed for situations where accurate audio reproduction is vital. Hence, they are often utilised in places such as recording studios, television studios, radio studios and even home studios. On the other hand, reference monitors are loudspeakers typically used to gauge what a recording will sound like on consumer level speakers.

Yamaha NS-10

A pair of Yamaha NS-10 studio monitors placed on the mixing desk / Photo by Katie / CC BY-SA 2.0

Audio practitioners expect studio monitors to be capable of producing relatively flat phase and frequency responses. Simply put, it does not emphasize or de-emphasize any particular frequencies, thus, giving an accurate reproduction (“uncolored” sound) of the original audio. There will also be no phase shifting of frequencies (no distortion in sound-stage perspective for stereo recordings).

Studio monitors are often designed to be used as “near-field” loudspeakers. This means that they are built to be small enough to be placed on a speaker stand or desk, in order to be closer to the listener. Hence, most of the sound that the listener hears, is coming directly from the speaker, rather than reflecting off walls and ceilings (thus being “colored” and creating reverberation).

Cambridge Audio

Typical home Hi-Fi system by Cambridge Audio / Photo by Ohconfucius / CC BY-SA 3.0

Its also good to know that studio monitors are engineered to be more durable, as compared to home Hi-Fi loudspeakers. Home Hi-Fi loudspeaker systems are designed to reproduce compressed commercial audio recordings, whereas studio monitors are meant to handle high volumes and sudden sound bursts that happens when playing back unmastered mixes in the studio.

Let us now look at the topics that will be covered:

  • Industry practices
  • Amplification system
  • Comparison to Hi-Fi speakers

Industry Practices

Studio monitors are often used by audio engineers in broadcasting and recording studios, in order to evaluate the quality of various audio productions. The audio tracks in these projects, will be mixed and mastered to meet industry requirements. Audio engineers will often observe and rectify technical defects (if any), such as audible distortion or background noise.

Engineers will usually aim to make the audio sound good on various playback systems including low quality clock radios and “boom boxes”, club PA systems, and also car or home stereos. Broadcasting giant BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), believes in using studio monitors that are of “the highest practicable standard of performance”.

Mixing Audio

Audio engineer mixing in the studio / Photo by Jason Meredith / CC BY 2.0

However, some professionals argue that audio monitoring should be carried out with loudspeakers that are of average technical quality, as it is a more accurate representation of the consumer-grade systems that end-users are likely to be listening with. It is also suggested that some technical defects can only be heard with high-grade audio equipment and can be ignored.

On the contrary, the BBC’s view on studio monitors is that they should be “as free as possible from avoidable defects”. It is argued that there are many types of low-quality sound systems and it is impossible to compensate for the poor characteristics of every one. Technical flaws must not be obvious to any listener and also remain undetected by the operating staff.

Amplification System

Studio monitors can either be “active” (with built-in power amplifier(s)), or “passive” (requires an external power amplifier). Active monitors are usually bi-amplified, meaning that the sound signal from the speaker’s input is filtered into two separate low and high frequency components. The filtering is carried out by an internal active crossover unit.

Active Studio Monitor

Basic overview of an active speaker’s system / Photo by Iainf / CC BY-SA 3.0

Both of the frequency components will be amplified by separate low and high frequency amplifiers, before being routed to a woofer (for the low frequencies) and to a tweeter or horn (for the high frequencies). Bi-amplification is often implemented in order to achieve a cleaner overall sound reproduction, since signals are easier to process before power amplification.

Comparison to Hi-Fi Speakers

In reality, there are no speakers (monitor or hi-fi) that has a completely flat frequency response. Every speaker will color the sound to some extent. Although studio monitors are thought to be completely transparent (no coloration at all), there are no clear-cut distinctions when compared to consumer speakers. Despite this, manufacturers still emphasize the difference in their marketing efforts.

In general, studio monitors are built to have high physical durability, in order to withstand high volumes and physical knocks that may happen in the studio. They are also optimized for listening at shorter distances (near field monitors) as compared to hi-fi speakers. But this does not necessarily makes them unsuitable for use in a home-sized environment.

Home Active Speakers

Active near-field monitors used in a home setting / Photo by Jordanhill School D&T Dept / CC BY 2.0

It is very important to take note of the fact that studio monitors are used by many professional producers and audio engineers. The general consensus among audio professionals is that studio monitors are ideal when it comes to producing audio that translates better to other sound systems.

We have come to the end of this article. Do you now see the need to use studio monitors for your own casual listening? Or is your home stereo system good enough for you?

Tell me what you think in the comments section below, and don’t forget to share this article!

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Farhan

When I'm not rocking out to great music, I'd prefer to be sleeping on a field on a windy day =)

14 Comments

  1. Awesome! I’m in the process of deciding what to do in terms of my own studio and obviously, speakers are a big part of that. “Do you now see the need to use studio monitors for your own casual listening? Or is your home stereo system good enough for you?” Those are the questions that I didn’t know I needed to ask. I’m gonna do more research but this was a great start! Thanks!!

    • Hello Judith!

      Yeah, speakers are definitely a huge part of audio productions, and they can really make or break an audio project’s overall quality. Do stick around the site and learn from the other articles as well!

      Thanks and keep in touch!

  2. I just visited your site and one other about shooting DSLR video. My desire is to produce some video lessons on the bible. My question is, would the use of this sound equipment be needed for this type of recordings, or is the sound just from the video camera equipment sufficient? I’m guessing that the audio monitors are mainly for music recordings to get the best possible quality. However I’ve listened to many recording like I want to make where the audio is so bad, that the audience can barely understand what’s being said. That kind of defeats the whole purpose. I want to produce quality video and audio lessons. What would you recommend?

    • Hello Jim!

      Studio monitors are excellent tools for critical listening, which every audio engineer is required to do, when they are editing or mixing any audio content. In your case, I would recommend that you get a separate microphone set up just for vocal recordings, and at the same time, you can just set your built-in mic on your DSLR to record the audio as well (its always good to have backup audio recordings).

      Studio monitors will provide you with the transparency and detail that you need when editing ANY audio content, and not just musical ones. This recording setup, together with using studio monitors during the mixing process, will greatly enhance the quality of the end product.

      Here’s a great studio monitor that I greatly recommend. And if you are in the market for a suitable studio microphone for vocals, check this out!

      Thanks for reading my article, and do keep in touch!

  3. I have a question for you – do you believe that audio monitoring should be done with average quality equipment or with top quality equipment? You mention that some prefer that equipment should be average, but what is your opinion?
    Since I believe that if it sounds good on high end equipment, it will sound good on average equipment as well.

    • Hi Emils!

      There is a very good reason why the overwhelming majority of professional audio practitioners use high quality studio monitors during the production process. These monitors gives audio engineers and producers a better idea of how their audio mixes truly sound like, with minimal coloration to the sound. This allows them to identify any technical faults in the audio tracks very easily.

      Its simply not true to think that every mix (produced with high end studio equipment) will sound good on average sound systems. This is because cheaper systems may not be able to provide an accurate reproduction of the actual sound quality of the mix. This is why mastering engineers usually play back their mixes on various sound systems (from high end ones, to cheaper ones), in order to see how the sound quality translates on different systems.

      Thanks for your comments!

  4. I recently tried to mix a score for a dream sequence on a web series we’re trying to finish. I used what I thought were good speakers – high quality tweeters with a separate woofer – plugged to my computer. But when I heard the final mix on computer speakers and on headphones, it sounded awful. Not what I heard when I mixed it in the first place. I think I should have used some flat response speakers to monitor. Do you have any suggestions on what are good home-studio speakers?
    Great article Farhan.
    Keep it up!

    Larry

    • Hey Larry!

      It would help greatly if you told me more about the speakers that you were using to mix. Keep in mind that your final audio mix will always sound different on various sound systems. With some experience, you will be able to master you mix better, so that it will translate well on other speakers.

      If you are serious about looking for professional standard studio monitors, then I would personally recommend the Yamaha HS5. Do let me know if you have any other questions!

      Thanks a lot!

  5. Hey Farhan!
    Thanks for the review! I’m so glad someone has taken the time to write a detailed review!
    So many people just buy speakers that are not going to produce perfect audio like monitors will.

    Are there different monitors recommended for different styles of music?
    Or different types of instruments?

    And also, how much of a difference does the price make? Some monitors seem overpriced.

    • Hi Drew!

      Studio monitors are usually not something that consumers will buy. Only audio engineers need to use them for professional production purposes. That being said, it doesn’t mean that studio monitors are not suitable for casual music listening.

      Monitors are meant to provide a transparent sound reproduction, hence, it doesn’t make much sense to me to have studio monitors that are geared towards a certain style of music. Because then, you would hear sound that is “coloured” to suit a certain type of music.

      Price does make a lot of difference, but only to the seasoned ears. If you are new to this, I wouldn’t recommend spending too much on your first speakers, as you probably wouldn’t be able to appreciate the difference anyway.

      Thanks for your thoughts!

  6. You know what, I have been making music as a hobby for many years, but I didn’t get studio monitor speakers until last year! I’m really glad I did because they give me a really accurate representation of how the music sounds. I have the KRK Rokit 5’s. I think they were the best I could get with my budget. But I have got so used to using them that I use them for listening to music for fun too. I’ve got used to that flat response, it’s normal to me now.

    • Hey Marcus!

      I can totally relate to your experience. Once you have developed an acute sense of hearing, it becomes very painful to listen to low quality speakers. I’ve seen good reviews about the Rokit 5’s as well, I’m glad that you are really enjoying them!

      Thanks and keep in touch!

  7. Hello, Farhan, we meet again!
    This time you have given me a very good education about studio monitors and how different they are compared to regular stereo speakers. I have been in a couple of studios during my days as a musician. My hearing is pretty much shot now , so I don’t think the sound would be that much different for me. I use PSB Alpha B bookshelf speakers and a 10 inch PSB Sub with my Harmon Cardon integrated Amp.
    Dan.

    • Hi Dan!

      Good to see you again, hope you are doing well. Its great to know that this article has been educational for you. With your current stereo system setup, I’m pretty sure you are constantly enjoying music at the highest quality!

      Thanks and keep in touch!

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