I am often asked by students what set of monitor “speakers” they should purchase for their home studio. This is a very broad question and there is no correct answer. There are many things to consider when choosing monitors.
First and really the most important, especially with students, is budget. I would compare the purchase of monitors to that of buying a car; you can spend a few hundred bucks up to thousands of dollars. So with that being said, the first thing to do is to establish a budget. You don’t have to go crazy, especially for a smaller home set-up. There are some really nice monitors out there that are reasonably priced, as well as some that are over priced for their performance, in my opinion.
My advice is to listen to as many of the different manufacturers and models that fit within or around your price range. For example, let’s say that you want to spend no more then $500 for a set of active “self powered” monitors. Go to your local Sam Ash / Guitar Center type store and bring in a CD that you know very well. All engineers have that one or more CDs we know inside and out and how it sounds in our car, home, other monitors, etc. Play this CD and really listen to hear what set of monitors you believe reproduces that CD the best, in your opinion. We all perceive sound differently, so someone may tell you they love manufacturer X and model Y, but if you have not referenced them yourself you will not know for sure that it has the sound you’re looking for. I would suggest testing all models before you purchase.
Personally, I prefer a very flat response in my monitors. What I mean by this is that none of the frequencies being reproduced are being boosted or cut. This is the goal for any monitor, but they all add color of some sort. The trick is to find the set that has a coloring you like or can work with. You may hear engineers refer to a set of monitors as smiley, forgiving, hyped, dark, bright, thin, etc. the list can go on and on. The main goal I believe in a great set of monitors is “translation.” How well does the mix translate in other speakers? If I perform a mix that sounds great in my studio, but then when I listen to it in my car, home, portable radio, etc. and I get a completely different sounding mix (it has more or less bass, mid range, highs, etc.) then the monitors do not translate well to other systems. I have experienced this multiple times with different manufacturers and models. A set of monitors should sound good in your room and the mixes should translate well in other systems. The mix will always sound a little different in each system you listen to, but you don’t want it to sound bad in any of the other systems you monitor it through.
As most engineers will tell you, getting the bass frequencies to translate well through multiple systems can be tough. This is why, even with a small home studio, a subwoofer is a must. Especially if the drivers “speaker cones” on your monitors are small (5 to 8 inches.) The low sub frequencies do not reproduce well off a small cone. This makes mixing these frequencies tough without a subwoofer.
If you are building a professional commercial studio, then you probably need to reach a lot deeper into the pockets. Commercial studios typically have multiple sets of monitors to select from as well. This will usually include a couple or more sets of near field monitors and maybe some wall faceted mains. Believe it or not, most of the big “wall mounted” monitors that you see in professional commercial studios are used for listening back at loud volumes for the clients and reference only. The engineer will most likely be using the near field monitors to do critical listening and mixing. I know many engineers that will bring in their own set of near field monitors to wherever they are working. This way, no matter what room or studio they are in, the one thing that will be consistent will be their monitors. That does not mean that the location/room can’t alter the way the speakers will sound in that particular location. However, if you know what those monitors sound like at your location, you will know what the sonic difference will be in the new location.
The trick to all of this is being confidant with what you are working with. You don’t want to second-guess every sonic move you make. I would love to share what manufacturers and models I like to use and the ones I can’t stand, but that kind of defeats the purpose of the article. Go find out what monitors will translate your mixes well, no matter what system you are listening to it through.