9 things to know before buying a Reference studio monitor

quiet home

If you run a Professional Audio Mixing & Mastering studio or simply like to record your voice singing your favorite song in your Home studio, then you will need a set of studio reference monitors. Studio monitors reproduce the recorded sound with precise details. But what should you know before picking the right pair of monitors? What parameters should you consider before making the purchase decision? Read on to find answers to your questions.

First of All, Why should you use Reference monitors?

When you record your voice or an instrument, you want it to sound the best. You would make a few tweaks and adjustments to the audio frequencies using Dynamic and effect processors. When you listen to the recorded audio through normal speakers, quality of the sound is not optimal and accurate. This is why you need a professional reference studio monitor.

Studio monitors are built in such a way as to reproduce all audio frequencies at an equal level. Audio output from Studio monitor speakers are flat – absolutely no exaggerated bass or pitches. This audio is consistent despite the level of the volume and catches all subtleties.

9 Important Tech Specs to understand before buying studio monitors:

A few specifications you have to keep in mind while evaluating monitors are frequency response, total harmonic distortion (THD), Sound Pressure Level (SPL), wattage and driver sizes. The values of these specifications determine the level of output you get out of your Studio monitor speakers. We shall use 3 popular studio monitors (Neumann KH 120, Neumann KH 310 and 1236A Genelec Studio Monitors) as examples to explain the technical parameters.

1. Active and passive monitors: Passive monitor doesn’t have a built-in amplifier; you need to connect the monitor to a power amplifier through normal speaker wire. On the other hand, active monitors like Neumann KH 310 have a built-in amplifier. The frequency band is split using a device called as crossover on the line input signal directly prior to the amplifiers. Passive monitors don’t require external power but active monitors do.

2. Near field vs midfield: A near-field monitor (ex: Neumann KH 120) is built for listening from near distance. A mid-field Studio monitoring system (ex: Neumann KH 420) is for mid distance and far-field monitors like 1236A Genelec Studio Monitors are used for listening audio from far distances. Near-field monitors are ideal for most of the small to midsized studios as you will not hear much reverberation from sound waves hitting the walls.

Neumann KH120 Studio Monitors Neumann KH120 Studio Monitor

3. Monitor Drivers: A typical Studio monitor speaker has two types of drivers: woofers and tweeters. Tweeter takes care of the reproduction of the high and upper-mid frequencies (Treble). Woofer recreates the low-mids and low frequencies (Bass). Woofers are larger that are used to produce the longer wavelengths that are characteristic of lower frequencies.  Because of the larger woofer size, it requires a bigger power amp to physically move the driver.

4. 2 Way vs 3 Way: A 2 Way Studio monitor will have a single crossover, meaning the signal will be shared between two drivers ex: Tweeter and woofer. A 2 Way studio monitor (ex: Neumann KH 120) will have the HF driver/tweeter dedicated to produce High and High Mid frequencies and the woofer dedicated to produce Low mid and Low frequencies. Whereas in a 3 Way Studio Monitor (ex: Neumann KH 310) you will have two crossovers splitting the frequency range into Three, feeding high frequencies into a HF tweeter, Mids onto the MF driver and lows onto a LF woofer.

5. Amplification: Single channel amplification will power both speaker drivers in a 2 Way monitor. Bi or tri-amping delivers more current to the drivers of your studio monitor. Instead of one single power amp running both the HF and LF drivers in a two way Monitor, Bi-amping will ensure each driver gets its due current separately. Since the low frequency driver generally requires more power compared to the HF tweeter, Bi amp or trip amp technology helps in supplying current according to each driver’s need.

6. Frequency response: You need to ensure that the studio monitor you are planning to purchase would be able to reproduce entire frequency range of your sound recordings. The frequency response of a monitor is measured in hertz(Hz) and kilohertz(kHz). Typically most of the monitors have frequencies ranging in between 45Hz and 20 kHz. There will be some variation in this range and this variation is measured in decibels. If the monitor spec is 45Hz-21kHz ± 3dB, it indicates that at some point in the entire frequency range the audio may be 3 decibel louder or softer.

QSC RSC 112 Reference MonitorQSC RSC 112 Mix Theater Reference Monitor 

7. Wattage: If you have a studio set up in a large room, then you need monitors from the likes of Neumann, Genelec and Tannoy with higher power value. Ideally, monitors with the power value between 15 and 70 watts will work well for a home studio. For even bigger studios more wattage is needed.

8. SPL: Sound pressure level describes the pressure of the sound wave, expressed in decibels (dB) relative to the reference pressure of 20 µP (micro-pascals) or N/m2. Smaller the studio monitors, higher the SPL specification, more powerful your studio monitor will be. Bigger studio monitors (ex: 110 dB SPL- Neumann KH 310) have higher SPL’s compared (ex: 102 dB SPL- Neumann KH 120) to the smaller studio monitors.

9. Total harmonic distortion (THD): THD measures how precisely Studio monitor speakers can reproduce audio signal. High end Studio Monitor speakers might have a 0.003% of noise or distortion. The value can go up to 0.4% if the audio circuit is very not designed well.

It’s always good to understand the specifications of your personal studio monitor, but one manufacturer’s “X” THD rating could be another manufacturer’s “Y” THD rating as the loudspeaker manufacturers do not follow a single methodology to test their Studio monitors. You got to understand that the specs are just the starting point and relying on ears to do the final judgment is absolutely a necessity.


Image credits: Freepik