There comes a time in every producer’s life when headphones alone just don’t cut it anymore. We all start out relying on either cheap headphones or, worse still, the speakers embedded in our laptops to hear our work. And then, the epiphany moment. Hearing your recordings for the first time through a set of specialist studio monitor speakers is a milestone event. Bass sounds deeper, treble sounds clearer, and everything is there reproduced in all its glory – or otherwise – for you to analyse, correct and improve. And, as this guide to the best budget studio monitors can attest, a quality set of studio speakers doesn’t need to break the bank.
Remember the first time you watched something on a high definition TV, after knowing only standard definition? To a bedroom or home recording enthusiast, installing your first set of studio monitors has that same effect. The best part is that decent quality monitors aren’t the sole preserve of high-end studios. Here we’ll present some examples of the best budget studio monitors; they’ll improve your ability as a producer but won’t cost you the earth.
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Which are the best budget studio monitors right now?
While there are speakers on this budget studio monitors list that will double up for gaming, multimedia and streaming audio, as purely studio reference monitors we’d point you towards the IK Multimedia iLoud Micro or the M Audio BX5 D3 sets. Both are built with music production in mind, and have features geared specifically towards this. Your mixes will sound better through these speakers, and your ability to critically appraise a track will increase significantly.
If something with a bit more versatility is required, the JBL One Series 104 are great budget speakers in their own right, don’t take up lots of space and would happily cover gaming and watching films if required.
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Best budget studio monitors: buying advice
If you’re new to home recording or music production, you may wonder how the budget studio monitors in this guide differ from the sweet, high-end Bluetooth speaker you use to stream Spotify. In the bluntest way possible, studio monitor speakers aren’t there for your listening pleasure. They aren’t designed to make your recordings sound good. They are there to offer a point of reference; if the audio you feed into them sounds good, they will too. If not, you’ll soon find out. In short, monitors give you the truth, for better or for worse.
Allow us to expand a bit. Regular speakers, from the aforementioned Bluetooth type right up to your parent’s prized hi-fi set, are created differently. They are there to sweeten the audio they receive, either through gently boosting bass and treble frequencies or by applying other predefined EQ settings. The choice – and age – of the speaker cone itself has an impact too. The result being the songs you know and love played back solely for your listening enjoyment. Monitor – or reference – speakers differ in that they have no prior agenda. They operate with what’s known as a ‘flat-frequency response’, which means they produce the sound exactly as it’s received; in the producer’s case from either the digital audio workstation (DAW), instrument or other source.
The benefit of this approach is simple, yet brings with it a ton of complexity. The theory is that if you can make your mix sound balanced, clear and accurate on a set of budget monitors, then you can be confident it will sound good on whatever speakers the end-user chooses. This could mean anything from a mobile phone or iPad, to a car stereo, to PA speakers in a club.
When you’re looking for a set of budget studio monitors, there are a few things to keep in mind. First is how you’ll connect them to your laptop, recorder or other device. For many, an audio interface will be required. This connects to the laptop or PC via USB and provides connectivity for audio going in – instruments – and audio going out – monitor speakers. Studio monitors are mostly active, which means they employ their own amplification, and require a power source to do this.
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Connection-wise, budget studio monitors are generally hooked up to your device via USB, XLR, or by shielded ¼” jack cables – the shielding helps reduce the hum from nearby electrical equipment or lights. Finally, consider the size you’ll need. Most bedroom/home setups will find a set of 5” driver equipped nearfield monitors will more than cope, while larger studios may find they need something more substantial to fill the room. Here’s a handful of the best budget studio monitors available to get you started.
The best budget studio monitors available today
Budget studio monitors don’t have to be large to produce a great sound. The IK Multimedia iLoud Micro monitors prove that, producing a clear, accurate sound from a small 3” driver. We particularly liked the room-correcting EQ features at the back of the speakers too, which help if the location you have them situated is hindering the sound in any way. The choice of 1/8” jack for an input makes them ideal for iPad or laptop producers, while the RCA inputs mean they can easily cope with record players, DJ mixers or audio interfaces too.
Bluetooth inclusion is nice, and makes them versatile, but judged solely on their monitoring performance the iLoud Micro set is well worth your consideration. Don’t be put off by the size either; these things are capable of some serious volume.
We’re huge fans of the M Audio BX5 D3 series, for a number of reasons. While there are other speakers on this list that will double up as multimedia speakers, or stream from your mobile device, the BX5’s are designed specifically with reference monitoring in mind. They have a wide frequency range, room correction features, and even a nifty built-in LED light to ensure you have them set up at the right angle for your ears.
If you’re putting together a music studio on a budget, and are looking for speakers whose main aim is to provide clarity and accuracy when it comes to mixing and recording, then the M Audio BX5 D3 might just be the perfect set for you.
Read the full M-Audio BX5-D3 review
Designed with home recording, podcasting and portability in mind, the JBL One Series 104 studio speakers deliver a lot of performance for not a lot of cash. As you’d expect from JBL, we were seriously impressed with the sound reproduction, which was both balanced and accurate across a wide frequency range.
Bluetooth 5 connectivity makes them versatile too – one minute they’re at the heart of your studio and the next they can be in the kitchen streaming from your phone. A great choice for lots of situations.
Read the full JBL One Series 104 review
If your recording journey has started with you using headphones or the speakers in your laptop, the Presonus Eris E3.5 will provide an instant upgrade. These affordable studio monitors offer a variety of connections, and the onboard EQ correction is superb to find at this price point.
Higher volumes, while achievable, aren’t the most pleasing but for a shade under $/£100 we’ll take our chances.
At the budget end of the spectrum, there are certain concessions that have to be made versus more advanced models. Often, this comes in a reduction of the available frequency range and, more often, it’s bass that suffers. The Alesis Elevate 5 MKII proves this point, but that doesn’t have to be a dealbreaker; the Japanese firm has included a dedicated bass boost switch for those moments when you are listening for pleasure, rather than for reference.
Overall, the Elevate 5 set performs well across a range of listening situations, and would make a superb addition to any studio or gaming setup.
Sitting at the top end of what we’d call the budget section are the KRK Rokit RP5 G4 studio monitors. Rest assured though, that the improvement in performance and sound reproduction from the ‘true’ budget speakers makes these definitely worth your attention. From the wider frequency spectrum, meaning richer bass reproduction, through to the onboard EQ presented via an LCD screen at the rear of the speaker, these are serious speakers.
If we were being ultra-picky we’d gripe a bit at the master volume pot being located at the rear of the speaker, but that’s not uncommon. Overall, however, the KRK Rokit RP5 G4s make for a comprehensive package for any home studio enthusiast.
Mackie is a brand which is well known and well respected in studio circles. It’s built a solid reputation over the years for delivering quality gear at affordable prices, and that remit extends to their range of monitor speakers. The Mackie CR3-XBT monitors hit that sweet balance between price and performance, offering a great selection of input options, including Bluetooth, with features that producers need like a wide frequency range and solid build quality.
The 3” main driver isn’t going to be troubling the sub-bass end of the spectrum, but we were still impressed by the clarity and accuracy of a number of reference tracks we tested.
It can be quite easy, when you factor in a laptop, keyboard, screen and other things to overwhelm a small studio desk. Adding a large set of studio monitors into the mix complicates things further, which is why the Fostex PM0.3 are such an attractive proposition. Each speaker unit is just under 4” wide, meaning you can happily upgrade from your laptop’s internal speaker without dominating your valuable studio real estate.
At such a small size there are compromises that have to be made; bass reproduction below 110Hz is non-existent, for example. But if space is a key driver, then the Fostex PM0.3 are a good option.