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 studio 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 studio 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.
1. HEDD Audio Type 20
Best high-end all-rounder
Launch price: $1999/£1499/€1719 (single) | Frequency response: 32 Hz - 50 kHz | Speaker configuration: 3-way | Driver size: 7.2", 4", 1" | Tweeter type: Air Motion Transformer | Inputs: XLR, RCA | Powered: Yes (300w) | Digital connectivity: HEDD Bridge, Dante, AES67
As a newcomer to the studio monitor marketplace, the Berlin-based HEDD Audio - set up by ex-Adam Audio MD Klaus Heinz and his son Dr Frederik Knop - is quickly gathering a buzz. The Type 20s have a sleek, futuristic, somewhat dinky look - but their ‘cute’ size is in no way indicative of their sound! With a frequency response of 32Hz to 50kHz, their front-ported three-way design (7.2” woofer, 4” midrange driver and 1” ‘Air Motion Transformer’ tweeter) kicks out a scrumptious full-range presentation that completely blew us away.
2. Focal Shape 65
Best mid-priced nearfields
Launch price: $899/£600/€699 (single) | Frequency response: 40 Hz - 35 kHz | Speaker configuration: 2-way | Driver size: 6.5", 1" | Tweeter type: aluminium/magnesium inverted dome | Inputs: XLR, RCA | Powered: Yes (80w mid and low freq, 25w high freq) | Digital connectivity: None
Available in 40, 50 and 65 flavours, the latter of which we’re reviewing here, the Shapes, from Focal, now sit between their budget-friendly Alpha series and the Solo6 Be - another 6.5" two-way monitor - in terms of price. Aesthetically, the Shapes are an interesting departure from Focal’s other designs. The main speaker cabinet is black-painted MDF with a luxurious walnut veneer, appearing less ‘studio spaceship’ and more ‘hi- connoisseur’ - in fact, they’d look just as at home in a domestic cinema setup as in a production environment. Interestingly, the Shapes are non-ported, with dual 6.5" passive radiators (one on each side of the monitor).
3. Equator Audio Research D5
Best compact coaxial design
Launch price: $299/£349/€399 (pair) | Frequency response: 53 Hz - 20 kHz | Speaker configuration: 2-way, coaxial | Driver size: 5.25", 1" | Tweeter type: Silk dome | Inputs: XLR, RCA | Powered: Yes (80w mid and low freq, 25w high freq) | Digital connectivity: None
The Equator D5s are much smaller than the Q series but maintain the design aesthetic; a coaxial design. Sound emanating from a single point-source shouldn't exhibit the sort of midrange phase distortion that a traditional two-way monitor design can introduce when the audio, split at the crossover, collides when radiated from the separately located tweeter and woofer. Equator believe that no two transducers have ever been manufactured with identical output characteristics and that, without the left and right speakers having the same characteristics, image shifts will occur in the stereo field. That's where some of the DSP comes in - to provide accurate voicing for each individual monitor by delivering a consistently matched output curve for every unit, that voicing being created, say Equator, by award-winning recording engineers, who referenced their hit mixes.
4. Adam S2V
Best high-end 2-way design
Launch price: $1749/£1499/€1749 (single) | Frequency response: 35 Hz - 50 kHz | Speaker configuration: 2-way | Driver size: 7", 2" | Tweeter type: S-ART ribbon | Inputs: XLR | Powered: Yes (300w) | Digital connectivity: AES3, USB
The S2V is the smallest in the range and built around a newly developed 7” woofer with Adam’s latest S-ART ribbon handling tweeter duties. Onboard amplification is a combination of Class D (woofer) and Class A/B (tweeter) and the crossover, volume, time delay and EQ settings are handled by onboard DSP, accessed via a menu driven OLED on the back. Here you’ll also find an analogue input via XLR, a pair of AES3 digital connectors (you can daisy chain two monitors from one digital input), USB input (for use with the S-Control application), and an expansion slot for future options.
5. Genelec 8010A
Best compact mid-range 2-way design
Launch price: $440/£259/€305 (single) | Frequency response: 67 Hz - 25 kHz | Speaker configuration: 2-way | Driver size: 3", 0.75" | Tweeter type: Metal dome | Inputs: XLR | Powered: Yes (woofer 25w, tweeter 25w) | Digital connectivity: None
At the smallest end of the Genelec 8000 bi-amplified monitor series is the 8010A. Though relatively light (1.5kg each), the 8010As are solid thanks to the die-cast aluminium enclosure, with metal driver grilles to prevent damage in transit. Portability is key, with power and input sockets neatly tucked in at the rear. They come with tiltable Iso-Pod rubber stands attached, simultaneously taking care of axis angle and transmission reduction. They feature standard 8000 series mounting sockets for a variety of options, from truss hanging to floor stands. These are rear ported (bass reflex) enclosures, and just beneath the port is a recess housing five dip switches. Three contour the low-frequency response: -2dB and -4dB bass tilts which combine for -6dB, and Desktop Control which dips -4dB at 200Hz.
6. M-Audio BX5 D3
Best affordable compact 2-way design
Launch price: $149/£100/€115 (single) | Frequency response: 52 Hz - 35 kHz | Speaker configuration: 2-way | Driver size: 5", 1" | Tweeter type: Silk dome | Inputs: XLR, 1/4" TRS | Powered: Yes (100w) | Digital connectivity: None
The BX5 has established itself as a reliable and affordable compact two-way monitor, maintaining its popularity through a number of updated and restyled versions. Its latest incarnation carries through many common features from recent editions, including a one-inch silk-domed tweeter, five inch woven Kevlar woofer (both magnetically shielded) and vinyl laminated MDF cabinet. Once again it uses a rear ported design to improve bass extension, and further rear panel elements include Volume control, XLR and TRS jack inputs and three Acoustic Space bass settings (Flat, -2dB and -4dB) to help compensate for the monitor position in the room. Much like the recent BX5 Carbon, you can connect both XLR and jack inputs simultaneously.
7. Fluid Audio FX8
Best value coaxial design
Launch price: $324/£299/€399 (pair) | Frequency response: 35 Hz - 22 kHz | Speaker configuration: 2-way | Driver size: 8", 1" | Tweeter type: Silk dome | Inputs: XLR, 1/4" TRS, RCA | Powered: Yes (woofer 80w, tweeter 50w) | Digital connectivity: None
Fluid Audio says that it prides itself on the importance of speaker imaging. Its goal is to present a realistic soundstage where you can pinpoint and place each instrument exactly where you want it to be in the mix. A dual concentric design doing its work ought to achieve that goal and, when listening to some mixes on the FX8s, it does become apparent that there is a nicely detailed soundstage. There is a very good sense of sound location across the stereo spread as well as a decent sense of space back to front. Mixing a track using the FX8s, we were able to clearly hear instruments as we panned them into position. Clarity of sound is very good across the frequency range and the 8-inch woofers, combined with the port, will give you plenty of bottom-end; although if you think it's too much for your situation, there's no bass cut facility to help sort it.
8. Mackie XR624
Best value mid-range 2-way monitors
Launch price: $520/£386/€399 (single) | Frequency response: 45 Hz - 22 kHz | Speaker configuration: 2-way | Driver size: 6.5", 1" | Tweeter type: Black anodised aluminium | Inputs: XLR, 1/4" TRS | Powered: Yes (woofer 100W, tweeter 60W) | Digital connectivity: None
Mackie’s HR Series professional monitors have over 20 years on the clock and many fans, but at over a grand a pair for the six-inch HR624 Mk2, they’re not cheap. The new XR series shaves roughly a third off that price tag and delivers a new rear-ported design with class D amplification (bear in mind the HRs use a passive radiator panel and class AB amps). Despite its less impressive bass extension, the XR624 is particularly revealing for guitar-heavy tracks, and this can be a tough test for even the best monitors.
9. IK Multimedia iLoud Micro Monitor
Best portable 2-way design
Launch price: $300/£300/€300 (pair) | Frequency response: 55 Hz - 20 kHz | Speaker configuration: 2-way | Driver size: 3", 0.75" | Tweeter type: Silk dome | Inputs: RCA, 1/8" TRS | Powered: Yes (50W) | Digital connectivity: Bluetooth
A sister product to the original single-box iLoud, This two-speaker setup is billed as "the smallest active studio reference monitoring system in the world," and is designed to be used in small "makeshift" working spaces. iLoud Micro Monitor certainly has the look and feel of a downsized 'proper' monitoring system rather than a posh pair of consumer-level computer speakers. Appearance-wise, the speakers have an appealing 'roundness' to them, and are reassuringly weighty, though they're certainly small and light enough to be carried around. There's a cable connection between the two of them, with the left-hand speaker housing all the controls and connectivity options.