Studio monitors are a critically important cog in the machinery of recording. They are the boxes that let you hear exactly what’s gone down on tape or as zeros and ones, and if they are inaccurate or inadequate they can skewer the sound of your entire project.
Since most home studio operators have a limited amount of space, the question “Does size matter?” is especially relevant when it comes to studio monitors. The short answer is, “yes.” Engineers need studio monitors that are appropriate to the size of their listening space and to their sonic goals in creating an album.
To get a handle on the types and sizes of studio monitors available, visit the sites of leading manufacturers like Gibson Brands’ own KRK Systems, who make a wide variety of monitors for pro audio as well as exceptional headphones for studio use. Note: the “headphone mix” is not dead, especially in the world of indie artists and small studio operators, but that’s a topic for another article.
Typically a small studio is going to need near-field monitors — speakers that accurately reproduce sound in a close proximity listening situation. Near-field monitors are identified by the size of their largest speaker cone, which is typically five or eight inches. Conventional wisdom dictates that choosing the biggest monitor one can afford is the best move, to insure the best bass response. But it’s actually more complicated than that. If you’re recording in a small space, like an apartment or bedroom, verses a basement, a five-inch monitor is entirely adequate and more affordable. Moving too much air in a small space can create its own issues with natural compression and reflection. However, if you’ve got a dedicated studio space that’s larger, like a bedroom or a suite of rooms, go for the eight-inch speakers.
Near-field monitors are essential, since most people listen to music in cars, on small stereos and in with ear buds. Near-fields come closest to recreating those conditions. Monitors with larger speaker cones, typically 10- or 12-inches, are called mid-field monitors and they’re more old school, recreating the experience of listening on good home stereo speakers with 10- or 12-inch drivers. If there’s enough room for both, a studio should have near-field and mid-field monitors. The combination brings perspective. But mid-fields also more costly and in a bare bones studio they aren’t absolutely necessary. Burning tracks to CD and going to another location where there’s a good stereo with similar sized speakers can also help keep the project on track, albeit without the immediacy that mid-field in-studio listening provides. Note: Do not listen to studio works in progress on MP3s. They are highly compressed and degraded compared to audio CDs.
Another consideration that impacts your budget is whether a monitor is powered or unpowered. Powered monitors have their own small power amp built in and, of course, are more expensive. Unpowered monitors require a separate power amp. Perhaps the most important thing to focus on when considering powered or unpowered amps is the studio gear footprint. Is there room for the extra cables and equipment that unpowered monitors require? If you want to keep things sleek, then powered monitors like KRK's ROKIT Series should be considered.
One way to stretch a budget is to buy used. However, that strategy works best with well-made contemporary monitors that have resin-reinforced, Kevlar or glass-fiber cones. The soft paper cones that were once the industry standard suffer fatigue from humidity, age and mileage. As much as we tend to value classic gear, that doesn’t apply to most monitors. Contemporary studio monitors generally surpass anything made more than a decade ago.