If you’re reading this now because you’re in the market for some studio monitors for your home recording exploits – congratulations! You’ve either got some very understanding neighbours or you live far enough away from them for it to matter!
In all seriousness though, if you want to get the best mix of your music as possible, then some good studio monitors are what you need.
Mixing on headphones is all well and good when making noise is a problem, but it doesn’t compare to the accuracy that you get from decent monitors.
More than any other aspect of a home recording studio, there is a big difference between low-end and the high-end monitors. This is the one area where more money does, sadly, equal better quality.
So, rather than stick to a price range here, we’re going to look at size. Yes, you can spend thousands on some studio monitors if you’ve got the money, but that’s pointless if they’re way too big for your recording space.
Mercifully, there are some good options that aren’t too expensive and are adequate for all but the most discerning h0me recording artists
The Main Features
As with our look at the best studio headphones, we can get very technical here. Let’s not do that though and instead look at the main features that you should be looking for, which are:
- Far-field or near-field
- Passive or active
- Frequency response
You can get monster monitors that will dominate the room, but these are way too much for home recording. The monitors featured here can fit on a modestly-sized computer desk or mounted on the wall or small speaker stands easily enough.
Far-field and near-field refers to the distance of the listener (you) to the monitors. Anything under 6 feet and you want near-field.
Passive or active relates to how the monitors are powered. Passive monitors require a separate amplifier and active monitors do not. So, unless you want to fork out and have space for an amplifier, look at active monitors.
When it comes to frequency response, the wider the range the more detail the sound has. The human listening range is 20Hz to 20kHz and you can’t hear anything outside that. However, having a little more either side doesn’t hurt.
Finally, the power is how loud the monitors can go. Unless you really want to annoy your neighbours, 50 watts of power is more than enough.
With those in mind, let’s take a look at the best studio monitors for a home recording studio. These will give you accurate, clear sound without taking up too much space.
Note that studio monitors do not usually come with leads as standard. Check before you buy what’s included.
KRK RP5G3-NA Rokit 5 Generation 3
The KRK Rokit 5 are fantastic entry-level active studio monitors that are perfect for a home recording studio. Measuring 28cm x 18cm x 23cm (height x width x depth) these are small enough to fit onto most computer desks without getting in the way.
The distinctive yellow speaker cone looks awesome, but that’s not as important as the sound. A frequency response range from 45Hz to 35kHz means that you get sparkly top end and punchy mids, but the low frequency is lacking a little.
Nevertheless, at this price, you get great value with solid build quality and 50 watts of power. If you want a bit more oomph in the lower frequencies, the Rokit 6 and Rokit 8 are decent options, but the size goes up, as does the price.
M-Audio Studiophile AV40
A cheaper alternative to the KRK Rokit 5, the M-Audio Studiophile AV40 monitors are popular and pack a decent punch.
At 22cm x 15cm x 18cm (HxWxD), these are quite a bit smaller and lighter, which might be a benefit for some.
You do lose some accuracy with the 85Hz to 20kHz frequency response and the power is just 20 watts, so these are far from the best offering here. However, the bass is adequate and accuracy is pretty good until you start pushing the volume.
Consider these if the budget is tight – the sound quality can’t be beaten at this price.
Alesis M1 Active 320
If the Studiophile AV40 are still too expensive for you, then the Alesis M1 Active 320’s are good value for money.
These are especially popular amongst beginners as they double-up as an audio interface, although don’t expect the same kind of quality as you’d get from a separate unit.
Coming in at 19cm x 16.5cm x 13cm, these are very compact. 10 watts of power means that they don’t cope well with being turned up loud, but the frequency response range of 80Hz to 20kHz gives an accuracy comparable to the Studiophile AV40 at lower volumes.
Worth noting is that these have USB connectivity, hence how it works as an audio interface. The connections are on the back (2 x line level inputs and 2 x phono inputs), which is a pain if you’re switching instruments. There are no powered XLR inputs either, so forget about using a condenser microphone with these.
Definitely a huge step up from any consumer PC speakers, but these aren’t the best choice for home recording and you might prefer to save up for the AV40’s or Rokit 5’s. But if you can’t wait, you won’t find better at the price.
A rival to the KRK Rokit 5, the Yamaha HS5 are probably the best studio monitors available for the price.
Featuring beefy 70 watts of power and a frequency response of 54Hz to 30kHz, these will deliver loud, clear sound with crisp highs, full mids and deep bass.
Measuring 28.5cm x 22cm x 17cm, these are also a bit bigger than the Rokit 5.
For the same money, you could get the Rokit 6, which are a slightly beefier version of the Rokit 5, but your money would be better spent here.
Also available in white, if that’s your bag. The larger versions in Yamaha’s HS series even give the artisan brands coming up next a run for their money. If you can afford these, buy them. You won’t be disappointed!
There’s currently an excellent deal on Amazon for the HS5 including speaker stands, cables and monitor isolation pads for $399. Get on it!
Adam Audio A3X
Stepping up in price and quality, we have the Adam Audio A3X. These guys generally make high-end professional studio monitors.
Measuring at 25cm x 15cm x 18.5cm, these near-field active monitors are aimed at home recording artists. They may look like tanks, but the build quality is actually a bit less than what you would expect from this company. Nonetheless, they are serious speakers.
The frequency response is from 60Hz to 50kHz and, although the power is just 25 watts, these things have smooth and round bass. You can comfortably crank these all the way up without losing any clarity – something that the Adam Audio brand gives you that the previous monitors don’t.
If you’ve got the room, you could get the larger Yamaha HS8 for the same price, which can eat the A3X’s for breakfast when it comes to loudness. However, the A3X’s deserve a place on this list for delivering professional quality at a desktop size.
Let’s complete this list with a real artisan pair of active near-field speakers – the Genelec M030. These are the kings of small monitors for home recording.
Ok, the frequency response is ‘only’ 58Hz to 20kHz, but don’t let that fool you. Genelec make high-end, professional studio monitors with the highest quality of components and have years of experience. This translates well into this, the smallest and cheapest pair of monitors that they produce.
Hearing these is an experience – the bass pumps and the treble sparkles, while the mids will hit you in the chest. Measuring 27cm x 19cm x 19cm, for such small speakers, they make a huge sound!
The price is a bit excessive for a home recording studio, but if you can afford these, buy them and enjoy the most accurate sound you can get from monitors of this size.
Should You Monitor With Headphones Or Speakers?
It’s been asked in home recording forums whether it’s best to track with headphones, studio monitors, or other speakers while recording.
Young engineers are always interested in recording the “right” way. While there are right ways of doing this or that in a recording studio, seldom is there a right way that works 100% of the time.
For every situation, there are rules and there are rules that are made to be broken. I feel that headphones vs studio monitors are a great example of this.
I want to make it clear that we are talking about tracking here. While I sometimes check mixes with headphones, it’s extremely rare for me to actually mix with headphones.
There are a few situations where there is not much gray area when it comes to using headphones vs speakers or studio monitors.
- When bleed from speakers or monitors is undesirable, we use headphones. For just about anything else, I stick with studio monitors.
- When the volume of the instrument is louder than my speakers/studio monitors, I use headphones.
That’s it! That’s the rules. Done!
On the plus for headphones occurs in those times when an electric guitar player should be next to his amp, and not playing through the mic’d sound in the studio monitors. Sometimes, the natural sound of the amp needs to be vibrating the guitar. In this case, headphones are a must.
I personally hate headphones. Yes, isolation is sometimes necessary for a million reasons. However, I find that making a musician comfortable with headphones on is a pain in the ass. Getting a great mix in a pair of headphones can be difficult. Some singers think that headphones sound weird, especially when they are used to using floor wedges for their monitoring.
I find that headphones are just unnatural by design. I don’t know of many guitar players that are used to hearing themselves through headphones. When you do, it’s kind of weird. I’m used to hearing my amp in the room and hearing the drums in another part of the room.
Headphones Loose Localization
Headphones have a way of dumbing your sense of hearing down. The brain can localize. In other words, based off of reflections and such, the brain can figure out where something is. Imagine a person screaming in your ear. Now imagine that person screaming in a school gym 50 feet away from you. You can picture the distance in your head based on the tone.
Well, this isn’t that important for tracking, but we can use this localization to hear ourselves better. It works the same way that mixing in stereo does. You can make lots of room in the center of a mix by hard panning certain instruments.
It’s tough to get this same feeling out of headphones, sometimes.
So, Which One is Better?
Headphones are great in any situation where the bleed from an instrument can be considered a bad thing. If you automatically consider bleed to be a bad thing 100% of the time, you are mistaken. Instruments bleeding into other tracks is one of the best ways of creating a natural ambiance in recordings. With few exceptions, I don’t care if little bit of the already recorded tracks get into the vocal mic, for example.
Just about anytime that I don’t care about bleed, I use the studio monitors. Singers sometimes love this method. Sometimes, it’s the best route. The fidelity does not go down just because you monitor with speakers instead of headphones. It just means that there is more stuff in the mic than the vocal. This can be really good or really bad depending on what stuff is getting into the mic.
Can I Mix a Record Using my Home Stereo Speakers? Difference Between Monitors and Speakers
When on a really tight budget or just getting started a lot of people ask me when starting their home studio if they must have studio monitors. Let’s take a look at studio monitors vs using your home stereo speakers.
The Ultra Pro Situation
Without a doubt, the most important factor in monitoring is the acoustics of the room and the placement of your monitors in that room.
The major label big boy recording engineers have rooms that cost as much as a house. The acoustics in these rooms are amazingly even and this allows for the most accurate monitoring possible.
The big boys all seem to use different studio monitors because their tastes and mixing styles are much different from recording engineer to recording engineer.
I will put up money to back my claim. No big boy mixer is going to pick mixing a record in a shitty building with their own monitors when they could mix in a great mixing room with some other monitors. In other words, the room is much more important than the monitors/speakers.
The Ultra Broke Situation
You are recording in your bedroom. You bought a few cheap condenser mics and are going to town on your record.
Can you get great quality with your home stereo system?
There is no reason that you can’t be honest. Depending on the speakers you use, the room you use, and the way you hear things, there are a lot of factors that come into play and the speakers are just one of them.
I would consider it much more important to use speakers that you know in a familiar setting than to just run out and buy new studio monitors.
If you are just starting a home recording studio and haven’t done much mixing, you are in for a learning curve from hell.
There are so many things that you must learn to get your mixes to translate well to the outside world regardless of you monitoring situation that I’m not sure if it matters what you are mixing on when you get started.
I started with Mackie HR824s which are by no means the greatest studio monitor of all time, but I’ve been told by several big boys that they should be sufficient for cranking out kick-ass records (assuming the room is great).
Well, let’s just say that the sound coming out of my studio has changed drastically over the years and my monitors have stayed the same. In other words, I could have been mixing on a phonograph and it probably wouldn’t have made that much difference.
One Great Point
The most popular studio monitor of all time started out as a bookshelf speaker. I’m talking about the Yamaha NS-10.
These are the black speakers you see with the white woofers. They have been used in just about every big studio in the country. Their story is funny because they are some of the worst sounding speakers ever made.
That’s probably why they work well as studio monitors. This just goes to show that home stereo speakers can work out just fine for you.
Problems To Consider With Stereo Speakers
Studio Monitors Were Designed For MixingGenerally, studio monitors are voiced in a way to can make your mixes sound bad…seriously. Home stereo speakers are voiced to make your music sound good.
This usually means the mids are scooped quite a bit in a stereo system vs a studio monitoring system, but not always. They make studio monitors for a reason. Studio monitors are designed to make your mixes sound better than standard speaker systems.Think Long Term About MonitoringThe toughest part for me when it comes to mixing is knowing the monitors and trusting that the sound I’m hearing is indeed accurate.
You have to learn your system very well to mix well. There is nothing wrong with starting out on stereo speakers, but if you someday intend to get studio monitors, you may be better off getting them as soon as possible. The sooner you start using your monitors, the quicker you will understand them.
Monitor Speakers vs Regular Speakers Verdict
There is no reason that you can’t start out using your home stereo speakers to mix your home recordings. Check your mixes on other systems repeatedly and you should do fine.
Just remember that if you have plans of being a great mixer, you’ll want a nice set of speakers in a great sounding room.
The Bottom Line
There you have 6 options for home recording studio monitors. There are many brands out there – Mackie, Dynaudio and Focal deserve a mention – and there are some close calls out there. But, for my money, the monitors featured on this list are the best you can get for the size and at each price point.
If there were a ‘best’ pair studio monitors here, not including the Genelec M030, then my pick would be the Yamaha HS5. The KRK Rokit 5 are undoubtedly the most popular, and it’s not just because they look cool but they do deliver great sound. However, the Yamaha HS5 are so solid, powerful and clear, it’s hard to fault them.
It’s unfortunate that the more you spend does relate to the quality that you get. However, you can get professional-sounding results using even the Alesis M1 Active 320’s.
There are a few things to consider when buying some studio monitors.
How you position them is important as they usually have a ‘sweet spot’ where they really come to life, and you want to be sitting right where that is.
You also need to consider accessories – leads, stands if necessary and some isolation pads to sit your monitors upon.
Finally, make sure that you have an audio interface to connect these to – they’d be pretty useless without one!
Whether you choose one of these or a different brand, the ‘wow’ factor when you first hear some music through some proper studio monitors is something else. If you’ve been using headphones to mix before, get ready to take your mixing to the next level!