A studio monitor and a bookshelf speaker may share similar form factors and aesthetics, but do they serve the same purpose? Furthermore, can you use them for both endeavours?
What are the differences between studio monitors and bookshelf speakers? Studio monitors are designed for monitoring the sound of a mix in studio environments and are, therefore, intended to represent the authentic sound of the audio. Bookshelf speakers, though similar in size, are designed for entertainment and are not as precise in their audio recreation.
In this article, we'll discuss the differences between studio monitors and bookshelf speakers and deepen our understanding of their intended purposes.
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What Are Bookshelf Speakers?
Let's begin by defining what bookshelf speakers are. They are speakers meant to be placed on a shelf (hence the name), a tabletop, or any other elevated surface other than the ground. They need this location because they are specially designed and manufactured to produce sound in small and medium-sized spaces.
The term “bookshelf” is largely used as a way to discern these speakers from floor-standing speakers, which are designed to be placed on the floor.
There are plenty of different audio setups that bookshelf speakers can be a part of, and they can be voiced to suit different uses and tastes.
For example, you may want a system of bookshelf speakers to accompany your movie setup. On the other hand, you may opt for a pair of audiophile-grade bookshelf speakers to listen to your favourite records.
Regardless of the type you choose, bookshelf speakers are for sound appreciation. This means that they are made for people who love sound but don't necessarily require the most precise sound reproduction.
The emphasis is always on enjoyment when it comes to bookshelf speakers. They are typically designed to make them sound more dynamic and interesting.
For example, newer brands concentrate a lot of their effort on providing an enhanced low-end response to match the trends of bass-heavy musical genres.
This means that the “voicing” or “colour” of the bookshelf speaker (their frequency response curve) has to match the taste and need of the person buying them.
Moreover, many brands have a reputation for having a particular character in some frequencies.
In this sense, those who acquire, for example, an integrated amplifier and bookshelf speakers from the same specific brand could very well be buying a specific tone and flavour they prefer for their sound system.
The NTi A3 is a popular bookshelf speaker from Polk Audio. This 2-way speaker has a 1″ dome tweet and a 6.5″ woofer and is a superb and affordable option for home audio applications.
What Are Studio Monitors?
Now that we have clearly defined what bookshelf speakers are, we must address what studio monitors are. Studio monitors are tools used by sound professionals who produce audio products. From recording to editing, mixing and mastering, studio monitors help pros work with audio.
They are not made to colour the sound or even necessarily to appreciate the sound. Rather, good studio monitors are designed to clearly represent the audio, giving the audio engineer a proper sonic picture of the audio in question.
Studio monitors are also typically suspended in the air or placed on sound-isolating stands (more on this later) and work in small to medium environments.
Yet, the big difference is the functionality they need to accomplish. So, again, studio monitors are tools, not entertainment.
In this sense, we can say that they don't necessarily engage the “fun factor” for the listener. Moreover, they are specifically designed to avoid that kind of response. They should be as clear and transparent as they can possibly be. Otherwise, audio engineers may be misled in their efforts, mixing into an already coloured monitoring system.
Of course, it's a good idea to monitor your mixes on as many different playback systems as possible to ensure the mix sounds good across all listening environments. Studio monitors are intended to be the most accurate transducers but are rarely employed by end-users (listeners).
Some engineers even opt to switch between monitors and bookshelf speakers to A/B their mixes from the same listening environment in their control rooms.
The term used to define the relatively boring characteristic of studio monitors is “flat response”.
More specifically, studio monitors should have a flat frequency response, whereby no specific frequencies are over or underrepresented compared to others.
Of course, this is easier said than done, as it's incredibly difficult (practically impossible) to construct the perfect speaker from 20 Hz – 20,000 Hz. Different studio monitors will offer varying frequency responses, though they are designed to be much more flat and transparent than bookshelf speakers.
Designing and building a studio monitor with a flat frequency response takes a great deal of effort. For this reason, you'll typically see higher price tags on studio monitors than on bookshelf speakers.
The KH 420 is Neumann’s flagship studio monitor. It's a 3-way tri-amplified (class AB) midfield studio monitor, ideal for listening distances of 1.5 to 3 metres, offering extraordinary bass depth (26 Hz) with high sound pressure (122.4 dB).
Active Or Passive?
The active/passive design of speakers is another huge difference between studio monitors and bookshelf speakers, especially in high-end products.
On the one hand, the best quality, most expensive audiophile bookshelf speakers are often passive. This is because audiophiles usually use their own pre and power amplifiers to push them with music.
This ensures they'll get the flavour they need without anything adding noise to the line. Indeed, swapping speakers and amplifiers will alter the sound of an entertainment system.
For more information on the relationship between amplifiers and speakers, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• Why Do Speakers Need Amplifiers? (And How To Match Them)
• Which Is More Important, Speakers Or Amplifiers?
On the other hand, the best-quality, most expensive studio monitors are always active. This means that they have internal amplification and do not require an external power amp to drive them. Having an internal amp helps to ensure the monitors will reproduce sound as intended.
No amplifier swapping means no adjustments to the sonic character of the monitors.
Now, when we go to the multimedia, movie lovers, gamers, and people looking for a good pair of speakers to listen to music in the living room, we encounter passive and active bookshelf speakers.
Though based on similar design principles, active bookshelf speakers are intended mainly for easier playback without the need to connect them to a designated external amplifier.
To learn more about active and passive speakers, check out my article What Are The Differences Between Passive & Active Speakers?
Flexibility & Connections
The flexibility and connections offered by studio monitors and bookshelf speaker types will vary.
Most high-end powered studio monitors have balanced connections for line level signals. These connectors are generally either ¼” balanced TRS or 3-pin XLR. Balanced connections/cables offer superior noise performance thanks to EMI shielding and common-mode rejection.
The Dynaudio Core-47, for example, has 2 XLR inputs and a USB input.
Many multimedia-intended bookshelf speakers have an assortment of features onboard, like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Physical connections are mostly done with unbalanced coaxial RCA, though other connections may be used as well.
The Klipsch Reference R-51PM is an affordable pair of bookshelf speakers with Bluetooth wireless technology and the following wires connectivity:
- 1 x Stereo RCA Input
- 1 x Optical TOSLINK Input
- 1 x 1/8″ / 3.5 mm Input
- 1 x USB Type-B (Audio)
- 1 x Micro-USB (Service)
- 1 x RCA Output (Subwoofer)
- 1 x Binding Post Pair Output
- 1 x Binding Post Pair Input
Audiophile bookshelf monitors usually employ the highest quality connectors available.
For example, it isn't strange to spot binding posts for gold-plated banana or spade plug connectors at the amplifier and the speaker(s).
The Bowers & Wilkins 705 S2 is a 2-way bookshelf speaker with two binding post pairs per speaker.
Adding to these differences, most audiophile-grade passive bookshelf speakers have a strong aesthetic element to the design. In other words, they either look otherworldly and utterly cool or solid, vintage, and classy.
Studio monitors and multimedia speakers usually utilize a more practical approach and traditional look and focus more on the flat response than aesthetics. Of course, this is only a rule of thumb to which there are countless exceptions.
Let's Talk Stands
Before concluding the article, we must address one more topic: stands.
Whether we talk about multimedia, studio, or audiophile speakers, they need to be on a stand for optimal performance if they are not designed to be sitting on the floor. The reason being is that there is sound transference between the bottom part of the speaker and the surface where they are.
This might translate sonically into a muddy-sounding piece of equipment.
Moreover, you'd be throwing your hard-earned money away because the research and development of these specific designs envision some kind of isolation in the base (provided by a high-quality stand).
So, if you are going to spend some money on getting the best speakers possible, you should invest a little more and get them some stands, too. This will indeed enhance your experience as a listener and prevent you from working with a non-existent bass frequency coming from the rumbly bottom instead of the music itself.
This is true of studio monitors and high-end bookshelf speakers, even though the term “bookshelf” doesn't necessarily refer to speaker stands.
There are plenty of speaker stands on the market with a variety of designs. Check out popular options at Sweetwater by clicking here.
A good pair of bookshelf speakers or studio monitors is a near must-have for music lovers and sound engineers, respectively. They play a big part in how you experience audio.
In the case of studio engineers, proper monitoring can play a significant role in the quality of their work.
Additionally, music lovers who invested their money in a record collection, a great turntable, and good cables should never compromise their system because of inferior-quality bookshelf speakers.
Finally, in audio, just like in many other areas of life, the chain is only as good as the weakest link. Invest wisely, make the most out of every penny, buy great speakers, and enjoy music at its absolute best.
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