In Search of the Best Small Studio Monitors – Get the Most Out of Your Monitoring

By | February 21, 2015

Studio monitors are no doubt the heart of every studio, big or small, because aside from your own ears, they are the most important tools to use. It is crucial to find the correct kind of monitoring system for your studio, depending on your room size, technical requirements and personal preference. Read on to learn about important aspects of monitoring and tips for finding the best small studio monitors for you.

The Room

 

Room size is important when choosing a studio monitor. Photo Credit: MattLaws via Compfight cc

Room size is important when choosing a studio monitor. Photo Credit: MattLaws via Compfight cc

When purchasing studio monitors, you should think about what size your studio room will be like. For small rooms and bedrooms, a studio monitor with 5-6” woofer element will be enough for bass reproduction. 7-8” woofers are great for a little bit bigger rooms.

If a studio monitor with a large bass woofer is fitted into a very small room, it could introduce too much bass, which makes mixing decisions harder.
When choosing a room, the first thing should of course be to choose the most acoustically pleasing room. This is of course not always possible, and most rooms will always have at least some acoustic faults.

Lots of active studio monitors have switches behind them to adapt the monitor to the listening environment, and you should look for a monitor that has these room-treatment EQ’s in the back.
Ideally, you would want to take care of room problems with real acoustic treatment, such as placing bass traps in the corners and walls, but that is a topic for another day.

Monitors, I need you to be able to…

 

Think about what you need the monitors for. Photo Credit: wgossett via Compfight cc

Think about what you need the monitors for. Photo Credit: wgossett via Compfight cc

You need to think what you are going to do with the monitors. Are you going to produce music, mix it, or both? Or are you going to be listening to music mostly?
One of the important things to think about is how wide the bass response is in a monitor, and how far you need it to be able to reach.

Do you need to hear the 30 hertz range and make critical musical and mixing decisions that low? If you do, you should look for a monitor that is able to go down that low. Or pair your monitoring with a subwoofer, as they will get you to 20Hz. Usually, most active studio monitors go down to the 40-55Hz range.

For contrast, my trusted Neumann KH120 studio monitors go down to 52 Hz, and I make perfectly bass-rich music with them, with more punch that I could desire.

The midrange is another important factor to think about. Some monitors have a clear, “dissecting” midrange, while others have a muddier and “glued” midrange. In mixing, a transparent midrange is generally preferred, but good mixes are made with speakers with more duller and “vibier” midrange.

Lastly, the high end. Do you need the highs to be crystal clear or a bit toned-down? Do you want to be in total control of the upper “air” in sound, or are you fine with speakers that represent the high end of most commercial sound sources (such as laptop speakers, earbuds, tablets) clearly?

Generally, for solely music production, speakers don’t necessarily need to represent all frequencies with highest fidelity and transparency. I know of people who make music at home using domestic hi-fi speakers and mix it down later in a studio environment. But if you are mixing your own music with the same speakers you produce, you should be looking for a monitor that has an even representation of the whole frequency spectrum.

In the end, the decision of studio monitors largely comes down to personal preference.

Personalizing the hearing experience

 

Monitors are a very personal choice. Photo Credit: dominik18s via Compfight cc

Monitors are a very personal choice. Photo Credit: dominik18s via Compfight cc

Personally, I prefer very transparent monitors that don’t color the sound in any way. I like to hear everything as it comes from the sound source, the monitor acting as a vessel. Though, people I know use very different monitoring than I, which noticeably colors the sound as I wouldn’t necessarily prefer it to.

But it’s a personal choice!

Some people like a pristine high end, some prefer a gigantic bass punch. Different people like different things. Listen to a lot of different monitors if you have the chance prior to purchase. If not, at least research the likes that you think you would prefer.

What you prefer is key. You don’t need to like what others like. If you dig the sound and vibe of a certain monitor, go for it, and you’ll most certainly make awesome music with them. The speakers need to inspire you.

Get the most out of your speakers

There are some things everyone can do to enhance their monitoring experience:

  • Speaker Stands

Speaker stands are great for monitor placement, and getting them off any surface that could cause unpleasant resonances, such as tables and shelves. You’ll get more room on your desk for moving the speakers away from it. Stands also guarantee a better sound. Heck, you could even fill them with sand to provide additional acoustic isolation.

  • Isolation Pads

Little foam pads such as Auralex MoPads serve a great function if your monitors are on your desk, or any other surface, because they isolate your monitors from whatever they are placed on. This results in better overall sound and tighter bass response. The difference is impressive.

  • Speaker Placement

Speaker placement is very important to achieve the right stereo image and sound stage. Ideally, the monitors should set in an equilateral triangle from your listening position – your ears. If your monitors are an X amount of distance apart from each other, that same X should be the distance of each monitor to your ears, therefore forming a perfect triangle. As for speaker height, as a general rule of thumb the space between the woofer and tweeter should be at ear level.

Two monitors and the listening position should form an equilateral triangle. Photo Credit: Julia Manzerova via Compfight cc

Two monitors and the listening position should form an equilateral triangle. Photo Credit: Julia Manzerova via Compfight cc

Last but not least…

Learn your room and your monitors. This is the culmination of everything. If you know your sound, you’ll have no problems whatsoever. The sound will “grow” in you within time, and eventually you’ll produce and mix killer sounding music in your room.

Learning your sound environment can take weeks, months and even years easily. Be patient, and commit to one studio space for a long time, if you are able. If you need to move around, give the new environment time and listen to your favorite music for your ears to become accustomed to it.

To conclude

Do research and do listen to different monitors before you buy, and you won’t be disappointed. If you already have purchased a set of monitors, look for options to improve the experience.

Don’t forget about your ears. At the end of the day, they are all that matter.

-JP

Are you looking to purchase a pair of monitors / do you already have a pair? What are your experiences in studio monitors and environments? Go ahead and leave a comment below and I’ll make sure to get back to you.

6 thoughts on “In Search of the Best Small Studio Monitors – Get the Most Out of Your Monitoring

  1. Jason Thomas

    Great article, I’ve not done any music production in a long time, I have a set of Soundcraft Absolute 4’s packed away somewhere. They let me down & one of them blew out of warranty which was disappointing. I like your site very much, good work

    Reply
    1. JP

      Hi Jason and thanks!

      I think one of my friends had a pair of those monitors “back in the day”. Perhaps it’s time to get back on track? Behringer TRUTH -series monitors go for real cheap (had a pair myself for years and years until upgrading recently).

      Reply
  2. Alessio

    Hi JP,
    always really good and interesting articles. What is in your opinion the best song to test all the frequencies in a hi-fi system?

    Reply
    1. JP

      Thanks Alessio. To simply test out the frequencies as well as room acoustics, I’d go for a simple sine wave sweep from 20hz to 20Khz (http://www.audiocheck.net/testtones_sinesweep20-20k.php). This will reveal the performance of the frequency spectrum as well as possible room faults where acoustic treatment would be necessary.

      As for songs, I’d choose something dynamic to see how beautifully the sound system is capable of reproducing the music (check out Beyond the Missouri Sky by Pat Metheny and Charlie Haden http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beyond_the_Missouri_Sky_%28Short_Stories%29). If you have your TV system rigged to the same hi-fi system, you should watch a movie with great audio mixing (Inception is one film that comes to mind).

      Reply
        1. JP

          No problem. Sure, why not, as there are many different kinds of headphones that perform differently. You could also use the sine sweep together with a spectrum analyzer so you have visual feedback simultaneously as well, for some extra aid to see the frequencies.

          Reply

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