A Buying Guide For Headphones and Studio Monitors

studiomonitorsheadphones

If you're in the process of building or upgrading a home studio, you've likely spent a considerable amount of time researching headphones and studio monitors.  Public opinion on headphones and monitors can be useful, but unfortunately many consumers continue to fall for well marketed, lesser-quality products.  This headphone and studio monitor buying guide aims to educate you in what to look for when making your studio purchases.

Headphones

The Sennheiser HD650 open-back headphones are a great choice for mixing and mastering music.

The Sennheiser HD650 open-back headphones are a great choice for mixing and mastering music.

Headphones are a necessity in the home studio.  A general rule of thumb when buying headphones is the flatter the frequency response, the better the headphone.  Headphones can be closed-back, open-back, or in-ear.

A closed-back headphone is a great option for a musician who is being recorded, as they can isolate noise very well.  Musicians can better hear what the mic is picking up, as outside noise is attenuated roughly 10 dB, and microphones can pick up a clean signal with less headphone noise bleeding into the recording.  Closed-back headphones are also a great option for the recordist who is working with live sound or in a single-room home studio, for the same isolation benefits.

Open-back headphones allow for the environment to affect the listener's experience.  While these can offer an increased sense of space and an overall better listening experience, more often than not they are inappropriate for sound recording, unless of course you are able to isolate yourself completely from the source being captured.  These type of headphones are typically better suited for mixing or mastering situations.  Lastly, let's look at the benefits of in-ear monitors.  

In-ears give you great isolation, are lightweight, and can be less irritating than the over-ear options.  While the bass response tends to be lacking, the majority of them are of good enough quality for performers to monitor their performance through.  Many performers are accustomed to wearing in-ear monitors while performing, so keep this option available if you have a musician who hates recording with over-ear headphones.

Studio Monitors

The KRK Rokit 6's are an affordable active monitor that feature a bass port in the front.

The KRK Rokit 6's are an affordable active monitor that feature a bass port in the front.

Working in headphones for too long can be tiring, and unnatural for some people.  Monitors are a welcome change for recording direct injection instruments, MIDI, and even for editing tasks like comping and tuning.  They can help give a more realistic representation of how the sounds captured will live in a room, and they can save recordists from physical and mental exhaustion that can creep up from over-use of headphones.  They are also an essential item for mixing, and even more so for mastering.  Quality studio monitors that are well positioned and paired with an acoustically treated room remains the most favored way to mix and master.  With that being said, if acoustics in your room are a problem, headphone mixing and mastering may be a better option for you.  If you are planning on buying studio monitors there are many considerations to be made on prospective choices.

Passive VS Active

One of the many decisions you will need to make is whether you want passive or active monitors.  Passive monitors will need to be matched to the right amplifier and crossover.  This setup is more complicated than the alternative, but it has the benefit of being potentially more accurate and cheaper in the long-run.  Unpowered speakers are generally more inexpensive, so upgrading a passive setup can save you tons of money in the future as long as you plan on keeping the amplifier you've invested in.  Active monitors, by far the more popular choice, have an amplifier built into the speaker cabinet, so nothing but a few cables are needed to get these speakers integrated into your system.  This is definitely the more preferred choice, especially for a minimalist, as it allows you to focus on other speaker decisions like distance, size, frequency response, THD, wattage, and cabinet design.

Speaker Distance

Speakers are designed for monitoring at different distances.  You may have heard the terms near-field, mid-field, and far-field speakers before.  If you haven't, don't worry.  These terms simply refer to the optimal listening position, based on the design of the speaker.  Near-field monitors are often the first choice for most people, as they allow for critical listening directly from the speaker with less influence from the room and it's reflections.  Mid-field and far-field monitors are best integrated into a larger studio space, as they need more room between the speaker and the listener.  Mid-field and far-field monitors can offer useful perspective when mixing, but for the most home studio people, the near-field monitors should be more than enough.  The next decision will be choosing the size of your monitors.

Speaker Size

Speaker size and distance go hand in hand.  The appropriate size of speakers for the home studio is not a uniform choice.  Speaker size should be matched to the monitoring environment.  If you are monitoring in say, a bedroom home studio environment, 5-6 inch monitors will likely give you the most accurate results, while a bigger studio setups might benefit from 8 inch speakers.  Assess your monitoring environment and make an informed decision, rather than thinking bigger is better.

Frequency Response

Frequency response refers to the range that a speaker is capable of producing.  The goal for studio monitors, much like headphones, is to have the flattest response possible. This may take some getting used to, especially if you are used to listening to music on hi-fi speakers, as the flat response speaker may sound dull and unexciting in comparison.  Having flat response speakers forces better decisions as a recordist.  

Frequency response is represented by a range measured in Hz as well as a variation variable measured in dBs.  for example, a speaker's frequency response may be listed as something like 40 Hz - 20 kHz with a variation of ± 2 dB.  This would mean the speakers can produce sound within the above range, but any given frequency may vary up to 2 dBs.  A variation of ±3 dB would be considered a relatively flat response.  While this information is useful, representation on a frequency curve can give a more accurate description as to how a speaker will sound.  

It's important to remember that the room you will be monitoring in will also influence the frequency response curve, and for this reason it is best to adopt a try before you buy approach.  Some monitors have an adjustable EQ on the back to better match your speakers to the environment you will be using them in.  Acoustic treatment and monitoring software can also help tame over-pronounced frequencies created by your speakers or room.

THD

THD (total harmonic distortion) is another important specification to keep your eye on when purchasing monitors.  THD is both how accurately a monitor can represent sound being fed to it, as well as the amount of noise that is being introduced by the monitor itself.  A low THD value, say 0.001%,  indicates a clean audio circuit, while a higher value, above 1%, may introduce an audible amount of distortion.  

Wattage

Wattage is not as important as you’d think when making a decision on studio monitors.  A pair of monitors in the range of 10-60 watts should be more than enough for the home studio.  Larger monitor designs for bigger rooms will fall outside of this range, but if you’re just looking for near-field monitors in your home studio-sized control room, just double check your choices are within this range.

Cabinet Design

Cabinets are made of sturdy, non-resonant material to allow the drivers to perform to the best of their ability, without altering the sound.  Some cabinets have the added feature of a bass port, which allows for a more detailed and accurate low end frequency representation.

You should now be better equipped with making an informed decision when looking for monitoring options for your recording setup.  As mentioned earlier, it is always best to try pieces of equipment before making a purchase, so visit your local music dealer and see what they have available.  If you can rent the gear and test it in the context of your own studio, you will have an easier time making a decision.