Monitor speakers are an essential part of mixing and mastering tracks in your home studio. It’s important, then, that you choose a quality pair of studio monitors that fit not only in your space, but also in your budget. There are dozens of monitors available on the market, so making a solid choice can be intimidating. Today we’re looking at the numerous options for studio monitors, big and small, and deciding what pair (or pairs) are right for you. But first, let’s learn more about what studio monitors are and why we need them, and what features to look for.
What are Studio Monitors?
Studio monitors are special speakers that are designed to emit a much flatter frequency response than a standard speaker, with the aim of reproducing an audio signal as accurately as possible. This aids in the mixing and mastering process by allowing you to hear how all of your tracks fit together as one cohesive mix without any coloration from the loudspeaker itself. If you used regular speakers, the mix may sound great on that particular speaker pair, but when played back on a different set of speakers might sound too bassy, have a harsh high end, or other equalization or mix issues.
For this reason, most pro studios often have multiple pairs of monitors. The theory is that if a mix is repeatedly tweaked until it sounds good on all of them, then it’s ready to go. Home studio producers typically choose instead to review their mixes in multiple locations, like on their home stereo, in their car, on their phone, through low-end Bluetooth speakers, etc.
One caveat of studio monitors is that the output is tainted by the natural reverb and acoustics of the room they are in, which colors the sound and can cause issues in the mixing process. There are two methods for dealing with this issue: acoustically treating the room, using a room measurement mic and calibration software to flatten the output of the monitors, or preferably both. I wrote an article on how to calibrate your studio monitors with Sonarworks Reference 4 that you can check out here. I’ll also have an article soon on choosing the best acoustic treatments for your home studio.
What Features Should I Look For in Studio Monitors?
Scrolling through the different options for monitors, it’s easy to get confused as to what you’ll get for your money. Let’s take a look at the common features to help remove some of the mystery:
Studio monitors are usually referred to by the cone size of the main driver speaker, like 5-inch or 8-inch. For example, a “5-inch monitor” refers to a monitor with a 5-inch woofer cone and is probably closer to 7.5 inches wide including the speaker box. You’ll also often see a tweeter size listed, such as 3/4-inch or 1-inch. Simply put, larger monitors generally mean more overall sound output, but you’ll want to check out the Sound Pressure Level (SPL) rating for the monitor to get a better idea of just how loud it can get. Every 10 decibels (dB) of SPL effectively doubles the volume in the room. If there are two monitor pairs, one with 100dB and the other with 110dB peak Sound Pressure Level (SPL), the one with 110dB SPL is twice as loud. A good rule of thumb is that a 5- or 6-inch monitor pair is probably enough for a 10×10 room with normal ceilings, so larger rooms will usually need an 8-inch or more. A smaller room might be able to get away with 3- or 4-inch monitors, however with smaller monitors you typically sacrifice a lot of low-end response. Speaking of which…
As if that wasn’t confusing enough, let’s throw in frequency. A monitor will typically have two measures listed: the frequency range, and the frequency response, expressed in Hertz (Hz). The frequency range is the threshold within which the speaker can produce sounds at -10dB of SPL, and the frequency response is the range that it can emit sounds within 3dB of SPL. So a monitor with 37Hz-24kHz frequency range is capable of producing sounds that are just above the lower threshold of human hearing all the way to 4kHz above the high end range, but only at about half of the speaker’s rated volume. That same monitor could have a frequency response of 45Hz to 20kHz at +/-3dB, which more closely reflects the usable range within your room.
Frequency response should be an important consideration in your purchase. Some monitors, especially smaller ones, aren’t capable of producing enough low-end energy to nail down a solid mix without adding a subwoofer, especially if you’re mixing tracks in bass-heavy genres. In this article I have skipped over the cheaper monitors without a solid bass response because I don’t see them as a good investment, and feel you’d be better served mixing in headphones until you can afford a quality pair of monitors.
Silk-dome tweeter. Neodymium magnets. Imaging waveguide. What does it all mean? Monitor sales descriptions are going to throw a lot of terminology at you that, in the end, doesn’t really matter. What matters is how they sound, which is where the thousands of reviews and personal recommendations from people you trust come in. I would advise you to ignore terms like “Beryllium Inverted-Dome Tweeter” when shopping for monitors and stick with the hard numbers.
Active vs. Passive
Most monitors come with an amplifier built in, which is called an “active” monitor. Some monitors, called “passive,” need a separate amplifier, which adds to the overall cost. For the purposes of this article I have only listed active monitors, as they are the most common type and are typically priced closer to a home studio budget.
Calibration Controls and Other Options
Many monitors have switches on the rear for broad calibration settings. For example, there may be switches for cutting or boosting high or low frequencies to help compensate for wall distance, mounting height, etc. This shouldn’t be confused with proper room calibration, which requires a great deal more fine-tuning than the dip switches on your monitors can provide. There may also be controls for setting line levels and turning inputs on and off.
Human hearing ranges from around 20Hz to 20kHz. Even the very best studio monitors aren’t capable of emitting 20Hz sub-bass frequencies, however, and that’s where a subwoofer comes in. My advice with subwoofers is to wait and try out just the monitors by themselves to see if that’s enough, then add the subwoofer later on if you work a lot in EDM, hip-hop, or other extremely sub-bass-heavy genres.
Pairs vs. Singles
More than one person has been tripped up by this, so it’s important to note that most monitors are sold individually and not in pairs. In this article, I have labeled in bold whether the monitors are sold in singles or in pairs to help relieve any confusion.
Monitor pairs are usually powered by an amplifier housed in one monitor with a cord that runs to the other. Single monitors are typically self-contained units and require separate power cords and input cables that run separately to your audio interface. Most monitors do not come with cables, so you’ll need to add that to your budget when shopping for monitors. You’ll also want to make sure you order the right kind of cable (otherwise you’ll end up with a drawer full of unopened cables like I have).
Best Studio Monitors Under $300
In most of my “Best Of” articles, I start off by recommending products under $100, then move up from there. With studio monitors, that will not be the case. Monitors in the $100 price range tend to be tiny, tinny, and not loud enough to fill anything but the smallest rooms. if you only have $100 or less to spend, my recommendation is to save your money and mix in headphones until you’re able to invest in a quality pair of studio monitors. To me, it’s counterproductive to buy a “starter” set of monitors, as you’re likely to be disappointed by them from day one. To be blunt, studio monitors aren’t something you’re going to want to cheap out on. With that in mind, here’s where our list begins, with the best home studio monitors under $300:
(Please note that since studio gear goes in and out of stock frequently due to high demand and low supply, prices can and will vary. If the listed price for an item doesn’t fall within the category I’ve placed it in, it’s likely because it’s out of stock. In that case, you may want to seek out another vendor, pick a different item, or wait until the one you want is back in stock.)
PreSonus Eris E5
PreSonus doesn’t just make Studio One software, they also make interfaces, control surfaces, and monitors as well. The Eris E5 model is a solid lower-end option due to its budget price, front-firing bass port, multiple input connectors, wide frequency response of 53Hz – 22kHz, and relatively high SPL for the money. The blue motif of the power LED and Kevlar woofers will fit well in a modern-looking project studio. If you have the money to upgrade, the E66, E7, and E8 models are also very good and offer more low-end and a bit more volume as well.
(Sold in singles)
Kali Audio LP-6
The Kali LP-6 offers 6.5-inch woofers and very low distortion in lower frequencies at a stunning $150 each, which makes it the lowest-priced 6-inch model I could find. With a frequency response that reaches down to 39Hz, they are in the sweet spot for hip-hop, EDM or other bass-heavy genres and may allow you to work without the additional investment in a sub. The LP-6’s 112db SPL handling gives them more swat than anything else at this price point, and for another hundred bucks or so you can upgrade to the LP-8 with 8-inch drivers and even lower bass.
(Sold in singles)
JBL 305P MKII
After years of mixing in headphones I took the plunge into studio monitors, and the JBL 305P MKIIs were the pair I eventually chose. The reviews were fantastic and the price was right, and I haven’t regretted it once. 82 watts per side, a wide, flat frequency response of 43Hz – 24kHz, and at 108dB SPL almost too loud for my 7×10 space when cranked, they have more than enough power and headroom for my purposes. Having them around has completely changed my workflow and I will never go without monitors ever again. For even lower bass and more volume, they also sell a 6-inch or 8-inch model.
(Sold in singles)
M-Audio BX8 D3
A recent refresh of the BX5, the D3 features 5-inch Kevlar woofers, a 100W bi-amped design that really moves some air at 110db SPL, and a large 53Hz-35kHz frequency response. In a side-by-side audition, they were nearly identical to the JBL pair above in overall sound quality and reproduction, though they did have a slighly less pronounced low-end. They would be ideal for a smaller project studio with less than perfect acoustic treatment where lower frequencies are an issue.
(Sold in singles)
Best Studio Monitors Under $600
Though I can’t honestly recommend the other models in the Mackie CR-X line, the 8-inch Mackie CR8-XBT model with Bluetooth is a solid value. Featuring a very similar bass frequency response and SPL to other monitors in this lineup, plus the added Bluetooth connectivity, the CR8-XBT can function not only as a solid pair of studio monitors for working on your mixes, but also a way to listen to music through quality speakers in your down time. The green-and-black motif isn’t everyone’s thing, but I dig it.
(Sold in pairs)
KRK Rokit RP5-G4
A mainstay in numerous project studios across the globe, you can’t miss the distinctive yellow Kevlar driver cone and tweeter of the KRK Rokit RP5-G4. The newest version of the Rokit series comes with an LCD display for controlling the onboard DSP room tuning system with 25 graphic EQ settings and aid in your calibration efforts. The insanely high 43kHz-40kHz frequency response gives you the power to monitor your mixes and to annoy dogs in your neighborhood as well with their incredibly high frequencies. There are also 7-, 8-, and 10-inch versions available of the Rokit RP series, ensuring a fit in any size studio.
(Sold in pairs)
If you’ve ever thought that perhaps you should take the end user into consideration when mixing and mastering, you’re not alone. Avantone’s MixCube is an improvement on the original Auratone Sound Cube, a monitor speaker from the 1960s that was designed to sound more like real-world speaker systems. (You know, like the tinny speaker in the iPhone of that kid on the bus that won’t stop listening to Fetty Wap at full volume.) Featuring a single 5-inch driver, MixCubes are good in both singles and pairs for re-creating either mono or stereo consumer systems. To be clear, I don’t recommend purchasing MixCubes for your only pair of monitors, but instead as a second pair of reference monitors for intentionally lower-quality sounds.
(Sold in singles)
ADAM Audio T7V
Squeezing in under the $600 mark is the ADAM Audio T7V. This t-inch monitor boasts an enormous 39Hz-25kHz frequency response with an SPL of 110 dB, meaning that it absolutely cranks on the high end while playing all but the lowest lows with pinpoint accuracy. ADAM’s Accelerated Ribbon Tweeter technology is well-known for crystal-clear highs, and the T7V comes with a 5-year warranty. If you have the budget, this pair will not disappoint.
(Sold in singles)
Best Studio Monitors Over $600
Yamaha monitors are iconic. The white-coned woofer is a mainstay in many pro studios, and they continue to be a top seller decades after their debut. It’s also been said that Yamaha monitors, especially the older NS series, sound so terrible that you know you have a good mix when it actually sounds good on them. Regardless, they are extremely popular, have great reviews, and are a favorite in our Home Studio Enthusiasts group. No monitor list would be complete without them. The Yamaha HS8s have a 47Hz-24kHz response, and they also make a 5- and 7-inch version if you’re willing to sacrifice some volume and low-end.
(Sold in singles)
Focal Alpha 65
At the high end of what I’d consider a typical home studio price range is the Focal Alpha 65. Though not as loud or as bassy as some of the others in this lineup, Focal monitors are renowned for their extremely linear frequency response, ability to recreate even the finest details, and with the Alpha series Focal is offering these monitors at an attainable price. The Focal Alpha also comes in a 5- and an 8-inch version.
(Sold in singles)
Best Home Studio Monitors 2021 – The Bottom Line
And there you have it, my list of the best home recording studio monitors available right now. Thanks as always to our Home Studio Enthusiasts Facebook Group for their many viewpoints on monitors, in addition to the numerous reviews online. If you’re still stuck as to which pair of monitors is the perfect fit for your home studio and your budget, join us in the Facebook group and ask, we’re happy to help you out. You can also check out my other best-of lists here.