You might think that you don’t need another set of speakers. The chances are that you’ve already got a pair hooked up to your computer - in the MP3 age, this might even be your main hi-fi setup - or maybe you do all of your listening on headphones.
When it comes to making music, though, a decent pair of monitor speakers is, if not essential, a very wise investment. To understand why, you need to understand how they work.
While your hi-fi or computer speakers are specifically designed to ‘flatter’ your music so that it sounds good, they typically do this in a way that could be considered unnatural. This isn’t a problem if you’re listening to someone else’s album, but when your goal is to create balanced mixes that will sound good on lots of different systems, it can be an issue.
Step forward the monitor speaker, which is designed to portray your music as it actually is rather than how your ears might want it to sound. We’re not going to delve too far into why these speakers are technically different, but the bottom line is that, if you mix your music through built-for- purpose monitors, you’ve got a far better chance of making it sound good.
Headphones are another issue altogether. Trying to create a balanced stereo mix while you’re monitoring through cans is notoriously difficult because, rather than hearing some of each channel (left and right) in each ear, it’s an ‘either/or scenario’. We wouldn’t dream of telling you not to use headphones at all - in many cases, such as when you’re making music on the move or at a time when making noise is a no-no, they’re essential - but it’s certainly a bad idea to rely on them exclusively.
It would be easy to generalise and say that the more you pay for your monitors, the ‘better’ they’ll sound. This is true up to a point, but speaker preference is ultimately a very personal thing so, if at all possible, we’d advise you to try and audition a few sets before you make a decision.
Based on the reviews on MusicRadar (and in roughly ascending street price order), here are some of the best affordable monitors currently available.
The AV42 from M-Audio is an updated monitor that succeeds the popular AV40. In terms of specs and looks, it's very similar.
The AV42s still feature a 4-inch driver, 1-inch tweeter and 20 Watts of output. However, the grilles have been ditched for a cleaner design, with the main difference being the new 'OptImage IV tweeter wave guide'.
Running them alongside the Mackie CR3s, the AV42s have a slightly more detailed low-end courtesy of the larger driver. They are not as powerful as the Mackies on paper, but you won't notice the difference unless you are cranking up the volume to uncomfortable levels.
We wouldn't suggest these monitors for critical mixing responsibilities, but the AV42s perform admirably in the small-factor stakes, proving once again that the 'multimedia' label shouldn't always put you off.
These 50W powered monitors deliver a large sound through their 3-inch polypropylene-coated woofers and .75-inch ferrofluid-cooled silk-dome tweeters, with a frequency crossover of 3kHz.
They have the 'one active, one passive' arrangement tbat's standard for monitors of this size and price, with the added bonus of being able to switch the powered side to either the left or right.
The sound is detailed, but the top-end can get a bit swallowed up by the bass extension courtesy of the rear-facing ports. There are no attenuation controls to cope with EQing and room placement but, at this price, it's a small grumble.
M-Audio BX5 Carbon
Since its introduction over a decade ago, the BX5 has been through a number of different incarnations, all the while receiving solid support and always offering incredible VFM.
Its latest update, the BX5 Carbon, continues to tick these very same boxes. It now sports a silver and black front panel with matching woofer cone but, from a specification perspective, it's incredibly similar to its predecessor, the BX5 D2.
We find each monitor type tends to have its own ideal listening level and, for us, the BX5 Carbon is best at mid to quieter levels. This can make the light low-mid delivery more prominent, so we found we needed to compensate a little in that regard.
Even so, for compact affordable monitors these are pretty good - robust, loud if you need them to be, and delivering plenty of low frequencies without sounding out of control.
At 10 inches high, the VL-S5 is a compact monitor, and with a footprint of around 7 x 8 inches, is eminently suitable for placement, with tweeters at ear level, either side of your computer in a close-working environment.
There's 30 Watts of power driving the 1-inch silk dome tweeter and 40 Watts for the low-end's 5.25-inch Kevlar cone woofer. The crossover frequency between the two has been set at 3.2kHz - a little higher than some rival manufacturers' - to avoid phase distortion in the critical midrange area.
The only control, besides the on/off switch, is a volume knob that has no notches, and connectivity is via a balanced XLR or TRS jack.
Tascam has come up with something that's really rather good with the VL-S5. A pair of these would be a very good practical choice if you do not have a lot of space to place monitors in but still want good quality sound.
Fluid Audio F5
These compact powered monitors feel light but solid. The rear panel sports a finned amplifier with power inlet/switch below and line inputs above (XLR, TRS and RCA). The rigid plastic front baffle centre houses the silk dome tweeter (in waveguide), coated paper composite woofer, volume trim fader and slot-shaped bass reflex port.
Without a doubt, the F5s deliver performance beyond their price point. Good transient response, a smooth mid to HF range and some punchy power make them good candidates if you have a small budget.
The slightly bulbous low-end isn't marred by any overt resonant peaks, but is something you'll have to get used to. Ultimately, though, the F5s give you a lot of speaker for your money.
Behringer Truth B1031A
Behringer is a company that’s built its reputation on producing usable products at bargain prices, and the B1031As are a perfect example of this philosophy. They don’t look or sound cheap, but the price is very attractive indeed.
The all-important bass sounds tight and doesn’t distort, while the top end of the mix is nicely detailed without being too sharp. There monitors provide plenty of detail in the midrange, too - it’s not difficult to pick out the different instruments in your mix.
The B1031As have a nice wide sweet spot, meaning that you don’t need to worry about positioning yourself too precisely in front of them. They’re comfortable to listen to for long periods, too - these are speakers that you’ll be happy to live with and come at a great price.
Fluid Audio FX8
The FX8 is the largest studio monitor in the Fluid Audio range and a departure from its usual two-way design that features a tweeter above the bass driver. Here, we're looking at a bi-amped dual concentric (also known as coaxial) design.
There are no tonal controls at all to adjust - just a volume control, and that is placed on the fascia for easy access and runs from silence up to 0dB, with an indented position at -6dB. Connectivity covers all the common options, with XLR, 1/4-inch jack and RCA phono sockets.
In use, there's a very good sense of sound location across the stereo spread, as well as a decent sense of space back to front. Clarity of sound is also very good across the frequency range, and the 8-inch woofers, combined with the bass reflex port, will give you plenty of bottom-end.
As with any monitor, it's a matter of getting familiar with the sound but, overall, we feel that the FX8s are monitors that we would have no trouble using on critical mixes.
Samson Resolv RXA6
Samson says that its newly-developed 2.5-inch aluminium tweeter's corrugated ribbon design is able to move four times the air of a standard dome tweeter, resulting in a linear response with extended high-end, as well as an accurate phase response and extremely low distortion.
Listening to some produced mixes on the RXA6s supports Samson's view of how well the ribbon tweeter handles the high-end. The bottom-end seems full and solidly reproduced, too, with the woofers and the bass port combining to offer tight and controlled response.
As a pair of monitors for working with, both when building up tracks and mixing, there's nothing about the RXA6s that potential users should be wary of. Whether you see a ribbon tweeter as a desired feature or not, these are decent performers that deserve a listen.
The F5 and F7 use 5- and 7-inch woofers respectively. These are a new design combining glass fibre and a paper backing. The tweeters, meanwhile, use Adam's X-ART design.
Both models include the same rear panel controls, which are two +/- 6dB shelving EQs at 300Hz and 5kHz and a volume control (-inf to +6dB). There's also an 80Hz high-pass filter designed primarily for using with the optional F-Sub. Inputs are via either a phono or combination jack/XLR.
Fire up these monitors and they immediately sound just as you would expect: open in the top end with plenty of upper-mid detail; solid in the low mid and mid range and reasonably well balanced at the bottom.
The F7 sounds more expansive and engrossing, while the F5 is a bit more precise, particularly in the mid range. At the bottom, the F7 extension is much better.
On balance we prefer the F7s, mostly because the scale of the delivery is bigger and they sound more capable at high levels. That said, the F5 would be great for smaller rooms.
Adam Audio A3X
Adam’s pricier monitors have frequently won praise, so the prospect of getting some of that high-performance quality for a fraction of the cost is certainly appealing. With the Audio A3Xs, the signs are good from the off: they look great and certainly don’t feel cheap in comparison to their more expensive siblings.
These speakers feature Adam’s X-ART tweeter, which translates into great performance at the top end. Detail is actually pretty good across your mix, whatever volume you happen to working at. These might be compact speakers, but they can still go pretty loud.
In fact, the A3Xs have a big sound generally, and one that we’re very happy to listen to. If you can afford them, they definitely offer bang for your buck.
Equator Audio Research D5
Compact enough not to dominate your studio space, at first glance the D5s have the look of a two-way monitor until you realise that you're actually getting a tuned front port for bass that sits under the main driver assembly.
XLR and 1/4-inch TRS jack connections are on the rear panel, and there's a rear-panel three-way switch to optimise the monitors with different degrees of low-end roll-off for different room locations.
The D5s provide an impressively full sound for such a small box. The bass end is well-represented, there’s clarity in the mid-range, and the sound is well defined across the rest of the spectrum, too.
In fact, the D5s deliver plenty of definition to let you hear exactly what you need to hear.
Tannoy Reveal 802
The 802 is the largest speaker in the Reveal range. It features an 8-inch bass driver and a 1-inch tweeter, with a rubberised padded base incorporated to provide acoustic isolation and a more balanced low end.
Around the back you can connect balanced (3-pin) or unbalanced (1/4-inch) input sources, while a rocker switch enables you to select a natural frequency response or additional offset options to increase or decrease treble balance. The final option supplied on the rear panel is a proximity switch, which lets you adjust bass response depending on the distance of your speakers to walls behind them.
The 802s deliver punchy bass response with an extremely rounded tone. Equally pleasing is that the top-end is more discreet than we were expecting. Stereo imaging is good, too, with a wide listening sweet spot and a pleasing depth of field.
These are fine speakers for the price. Regardless of the volume at which you like to mix, you can be sure that the nuances and subtleties you're putting into your music will be accurately represented.
PreSonus Eris E8
The E8 is quite a large nearfield monitor and is bi-amped. The 8-inch Kevlar low-frequency transducer is driven by a 75-watt class AB amp, while the 1.25-inch silk-dome high-frequency tweeter gets 65W of class AB amplification. Besides the woofer and tweeter there's a horizontal front port.
All connections and controls reside on the rear panel. You should have no trouble getting a signal into the E8 as there are XLR, balanced TRS jack and unbalanced RCA (phono) sockets. Besides the necessary input gain knob, the E8 has a range of controls for tweaking the sound.
In use, the clarity of these monitors is good, and the overall balance of frequencies is one that you can work with. The top end comes through prominently and clearly (revealing the detail), while the bottom end is tight and focussed.
We'd be happy to use the E8s to mix our tracks; they can sound pretty big considering their compact cabinet. This is a monitor that should fit tidily into most rooms and will let you hear the detail in your mixes.
JBL Series 3 LSR308
Not only does the LSR308 feature two 56 Watt class D amps, but it also contains an ample 8-inch low-frequency driver. Throw in JBL's patented Slip Stream low-frequency port and you end up with some serious low-end action.
Build quality is good for a monitor in this price bracket, and it's pretty light when you consider its size. You have the choice of XLR and 1/4-inch jack inputs, both of which are balanced. There are also handy low- and high-frequency trim controls, which allow adjustments to be made in problem spaces.
All in all, the LSR308s represent excellent value for money and deliver a sound that is truly larger than life. They would be ideal for someone who's looking for something with a good deal of low-end extension and the ability to go a little louder than other monitors.
The PM641 is a three-way monitor and has the mid-range driver and tweeter sitting next to each other on a horizontal axis above the woofer. This serves to minimise the physical height of the enclosure box.
The rear of each cabinet is dominated by a large finned heat-sink adjacent to the connection sockets, which are an XLR and a 1/4-inch TRS jack. There’s also a pair of three-way switches to change the response.
Performance-wise, the bass end is impressive and kick drums come fat and rounded. We'd describe the mids and top-end as ‘smooth’ - there's no hype or harshness here - and it feels like you could use these on long sessions without fatigue.
The PM641s might cost more than some of the budget options, but just shy of £400 is not a bad price to pay for a nicely practical three-way monitoring system.
KRK Rokit 8 G3
Designed and engineered in the USA but made in China, the Rokit 8 (RP8), the largest of the three two-way models in KRK's Rokit series is now in its newly-released third generation. This brings (among other things) an upgraded amplifier and tweeter and the inclusion of low frequency adjustment.
The RP8 offers XLR, 1/4-inch jack and RCA phono inputs. Another thoughtful touch is that the cabinets come fitted with a foam pad on their base to decouple them from whatever surface they are standing on.
This is a punchy monitor with a smooth top end, but most apparent is the solid and powerful bass performance. Once you've familiarised yourself with their sound, these are very capable speakers.
The 8010A is the smallest of Genelec's 8000 bi-amplified monitors, but you might be taken aback by how large these little speakers sound.
The low-frequency response is particularly impressive, while at the top end the 8010As possess a smooth characteristic that's accurate and free from hyping. With a monitor of this size we would expect a harshness in the highs and upper-mids, but that is not in evidence here at all, and the mid frequencies are well balanced and accurate.
There is enough scope for response adjustment to suit any number of mounting situations, from desktops to stands, and there's plenty of power, too. If you want a high-quality monitor that's both portable and durable, you might just have found it.
Sold separately rather than as a boxed pair, the RPM800s, at around almost a foot wide, 17 inches tall and 15 inches deep, will take up a fair bit of desk real estate, so are not for small studios.
Bi-amped, an RPM800 has 120 Watts of Class A/B power in the form of an 80-Watt amp driving the 8-inch woofer and a 40-Watt amp driving the 1.25-inch silk-dome tweeter.
At everyday working listening levels the sound is nicely accurate across the frequency range, with a good balance between the low-end, mid-range and treble. What's more, there's plenty of power here if you need to crank them up now and again.
With their striking finish and colouring, these monitors will make a visual impact in any studio, but they are not just about looks: the sonics are not too shabby, either.
Three-way powered monitoring could crudely be considered 50% more difficult and expensive to deliver than a two-way monitoring system. As a consequence, three-way designs are rare in the budget monitor market, but M-Audio is bucking this trend with the M3-8s.
Though they look like two-ways, the upper driver is in fact a coaxial or inline MF/HF driver with a 1-inch silk dome tweeter and waveguide at the centre of a 5-inch woven kevlar mid-woofer. The LF driver cone is also woven kevlar.
For the price, the M3-8s perform well, and have a mid-range clarity advantage over many two-way models. Their not inconsiderable size won't make them an easy fit for small spaces, but it does allow for extra low-end extension.
EVE Audio SC204
Like all the monitors we’re looking at here the SC204s are active, meaning that they have their own amplification. These speakers are small, certainly – making them an attractive proposition if you haven’t got much space in your studio – but as soon as you get them out of the box you realise that they’re also substantial in all the most important ways.
All connections are located round the back, although handily, the volume knob is positioned on the front. An LED surround for this makes it easy to match the levels of the left and right speakers.
The SC204s reveal a lot of detail in your music and sound consistent at all volume levels; despite being small, they fill a room pretty well if you crank them up. And they pass the key test: music that’s mixed using them sounds good when it’s played through other sound systems. This makes them speakers you can rely on.
The PX-6 is a powered two-way nearfield monitor that is equipped with totally new 6.5-inch LF and 1-inch HF drivers and features extensive onboard DSP.
With 50 watts driving the low-end and 28 watts driving the top, the PX-6s should be plenty loud enough for a small/medium sized room. The DSP certainly seems to be doing its stuff when it comes to imaging, as everything seems pinpoint accurate and precise across the stereo field.
Sonically, there are no nasty surprises. The overall spread of frequencies seems naturally balanced, with nothing unduly emphasised or lacking, and the top-end adjustment is tastefully engineered to brighten things or subdue them slightly to suit your preferences.