The Ultimate Studio Monitor Buyer’s Guide 2021


So you’re wondering which studio monitors you should buy, rent or otherwise try out. In this comprehensive buyer’s guide, we’ll go through everything worth considering before you make any decisions about a pair of studio monitors.

If you’ve found yourself asking, “which studio monitors should I buy?” this extensive resource is for you.

Please feel free to jump around this article and read all additional resources I have provided links to.

With that, let’s get into this comprehensive studio monitors buyer’s guide to help you in your next studio monitor purchase!

Related article:
Top 11 Best Studio Monitor Brands You Should Know And Use


Table Of Contents


What Is Your Studio Monitor Budget?

The first thing to consider when making any purchase is your budget. Money can be a touchy subject for some, and so I’ll keep this section brief.

I would never advise anyone to overspend on any audio equipment. Know what you can realistically afford, and do your best to stay within those limitations, whatever they may be.

Studio monitors, like many audio devices, range significantly in price. The market is rather large, and so there should be a good selection for any budget.

Note that some retailers offer payment plans, which could be an option.

Consider the cost to benefit ratio of the purchase of the studio monitors. For example, if the monitors are needed for business, perhaps stretching the budget is more appropriate. On the other hand, if you don’t plan on making money with the monitors, perhaps a more conservative budget is appropriate.

Also, consider any additional accessories or upkeep that may be required for your studio monitors.

Only you can determine your budget. All I’m here to say is that you should consider it.

Related My New Microphone article:
How Much Do Loudspeakers Cost? (With Pricing Examples)

Back to the Table Of Contents.


What Is The Size, Shape & Acoustic Treatment Of Your Room?

When opting to listen, mix and master with studio monitors, we must consider the acoustics of the listening environment, i.e., the room.

Before discussing the general rules about room dimensions, it’s paramount to mention acoustic treatment. Even the best monitors will suffer in performance if the room is poorly treated.

Highly reflective surfaces will cause reflections and standing waves since the initial energy/sound from the monitors is poorly dissipated and absorbed. This will cause issues with echo, reverb, resonance, and overall muddiness in the listening environment.

Highly reflective surfaces materials include marble, clay brick, ceramic tile, concrete, plaster, metal, glass, hard plastic and even wood.

Acoustic treatment is available to help reduce reflections and “deaden” the room, thereby reducing echo, reverb, resonance, and overall muddiness and greatly improving the listening environment’s accuracy.

Acoustic treatment includes:

  • Bass traps: designed to absorb bass frequencies that build up in the corners of a room. They are made from mporous materials like foam and rigid fiberglass.
  • Acoustic panels: designed to absorb full-range frequencies typically against walls. They are thinner than bass traps and, therefore, not as absobant with low frequencies.
  • Ceiling clouds: designed to absorb full-range frequencies against ceilings. Like acoustic panels, they are thinner than bass traps and, therefore, not as absobant with low frequencies.
  • Diffuser panels: designed in 3D shapes to diffuse sound rather than absorb it. They help to keep some liveliness in the room while reducing resonance greatly.

Related article: Top 11 Best Acoustic Treatment Brands For Home & Pro Studios

So it’s important to have proper acoustic treatment if you want a proper listening environment for your studio monitors. Moving on, how do the size and shape of the room affect the optimal choice of studio monitors?

In general, smaller rooms sound better with smaller monitors.

Though acoustics is deeply complex, my typical recommendations (assuming 8-10 foot ceilings) are as follows:

  • Under 150 ft2 (14 m2): 5″ monitors or smaller – choose near-field monitors
  • Between 150 ft2 (14 m2) and 270 ft2 (25 m2): 5″ to 8″ monitors – choose near-field monitors
  • Over 270 ft2 (25 m2): 8″ monitors or larger choose near-field, mid-field or far-field monitors

Of course, these are just guidelines. Large monitors could work in smaller rooms, though the bass frequencies will likely cause issues, especially in poorly treated spaces. Similarly, small monitors could work in large rooms, though they may not fill them the same and may lack in perceived bass.

We’ll get into the aforementioned near-field, mid-field and far-field monitors in the following section.

Proper acoustic treatment is important, as is proper monitor placement. Positioning the monitors at least 10 inches (25.4 cm) from the wall will help mitigate bass buildup behind the monitors.

Furthermore, positioning the monitors and listening position within an equilateral triangle with the monitors at ear height will work wonders for focusing the initial sound at the listener. From the other viewpoint, this equal distance between the monitors and the listener will make the listening position much more focused on what the monitors are playing and less on the issues of the room.

The room dimensions or shape of the room come into play when considering acoustics. The more square/rectangular a room is, the stronger the resonances and standing waves will be. If the wavelength of a frequency is equal to the distance between two parallel surfaces (or half, quarter, eighth, etc. the distance), the chance for resonance is increased.

Additionally, oddly-shaped rooms will cause more diffusion but will be less predictable in their acoustic nature.

Some studio monitors come with software and DSP to help tune/EQ the monitors to the room. These features are great, but it’s rather difficult to optimize any playback system in a poor acoustic space. Remember that when choosing your monitors and perhaps opt to spend less on the monitors and more on acoustic treatment!

To learn more about EQ, check out my article The Complete Guide To Audio Equalization & EQ Hardware/Software.

Thanks for reading through this portion of the article. Room acoustics and dimension may not apply directly to the specs of studio monitors but are critical in the performance of such monitors.

With that, let’s focus the discussion on the studio monitors themselves.

Back to the Table Of Contents.


Near-field, Mid-field, Or Far-field Studio Monitors?

We briefly touched on near, mid and far-field monitors in the previous section. As their names would suggest, each of these monitor “types” are designed to be positioned at certain distances from the listener.

Near-field Studio Monitors

Most situations call for near-field monitors. These monitors are designed to be positioned close to the listener, often between 2-4 feet away. This close proximity makes it so, ideally, more direct sound from the monitors will reach the listener than indirect sound (from the room reflections).

This high ratio of direct to indirect sound is a great benefit for identifying issues in mixing and mastering applications.

Near-field monitors are designed with smaller drivers (their woofers are generally 8″ or less) and are often 2-way speakers (with a woofer and a tweeter).

The smaller size of these monitors gives them a relatively narrow frequency response, though 8″ monitors will often cover most of the audible range. Though perhaps not the most accurate across the frequency spectrum, these responses are generally flat/neutral and can even be thought of as beneficial in translating the mix to consumer playback systems.

On the topic of frequency response, near-field monitors often benefit from the addition of a subwoofer, though this addition needs to be considered within the context of the room.

Near-field monitors are generally placed on stands or isolation pads to position and mechanically isolate them better.

Far-field Studio Monitors

Far-field studio monitors are generally only found in high-end mixing and mastering facilities. These are larger monitors designed for placement along the perimeter of a mixing room, often 8 feet or more from the listening position, mounted behind the mixing console/desk.

At this distance, much more of the room acoustics will be apparent in the sound. So not only do we need a large enough space to distance the monitors from the listening position, but we also need a properly treated and acoustically pleasant room as well. For these reasons, far-field studio monitors are generally only used in high-end studios.

In addition to the cost of the physical space, far-field monitors also tend to have high price tags. They have larger, more powerful drivers and must be tuned to have a flat/neutral frequency response that extends across the audible frequency range. Notably, far-field monitors are tasked with producing low-end bass frequencies, which will actually have the chance to develop in the distance between the far-field monitors and the listening position.

Mid-field Studio Monitors

Mid-field studio monitors aim to be a happy medium between near-field and far-field monitors.

They’re larger and more powerful than typical near-field monitors and often employ a 3-way driver system (woofer, mid-range and tweeter drivers) rather than the typical 2-way near-field setup. The drivers and enclosures are bigger, and the amplifiers offer more gain.

Mid-fields are often used in larger rooms where the proximity of near-field monitoring is preferred and/or the room acoustics aren’t great. They can be positioned a bit further and offer better bass response. Before moving on, I’ll reiterate my loose recommendations:

  • Under 150 ft2 (14 m2): 5″ monitors or smaller – choose near-field monitors
  • Between 150 ft2 (14 m2) and 270 ft2 (25 m2): 5″ to 8″ monitors – choose near-field monitors
  • Over 270 ft2 (25 m2): 8″ monitors or larger choose near-field, mid-field or far-field monitors

Back to the Table Of Contents.


Active Vs. Passive Studio Monitors

Studio monitors can largely be categorized as either active (requiring power) or passive (not requiring power). The need for power, or lack thereof, has to do with whether the monitor has a built-in power amplifier.

Speakers (including studio monitors) require speaker level signals to be driven properly. Most audio equipment works at line level, or at least close to line level. Professional line level signals are nominally +4 dBu (1.228 VRMS). Speaker level signals aren’t as standardized (speakers vary significantly in power handling capabilities) but range from just about line level to 100 VRMS (+42 dBu or +40 dBV) or more.

Speakers need this higher level signal for two general reasons:

First, speaker drivers are physical bodies that are required to move in order to produce sound. This takes more energy.

Second, line level signals are much more appropriate for making standard audio equipment affordable and compatible. Speaker level signals would overload line level equipment, causing damage. Furthermore, developing standard audio devices (compressors, equalizers, effects units, mixers, consoles, audio interfaces, etc.) to handle speaker levels would cost much more due to the additional electrical requirements and heat issues.

So, that’s a long way of saying that studio monitors need power amplifiers to work properly.

Active monitors have built-in power amplifiers, while passive monitors rely on external standalone power amplifiers.

Passive Studio Monitors

By the last statement, we can infer that passive monitors are much more modular, meaning they can be paired with different amplifiers and crossover networks. Passive monitors are also lighter weight and are often less expensive than their active counterparts.

The downside of passive monitors, though, is in their modular nature. Matching the monitors to a compatible amplifier and crossover optimally requires knowledge in impedance and power ratings, along with understanding the preferred responses of the monitor drivers and the crossover points of the crossover.

A Note On Crossovers & Amplification Configurations

While on the topic of crossovers, I should mention single-amp, bi-amp, or tri-amp monitor configurations.

With a single-amp configuration, the incoming audio signal (often line level monitor/speaker output from an audio interface or mixing console) is passed through a power amplifier. Once amplified to an appropriate speaker level, the signal is sent to a crossover that splits the signal into the appropriate frequency bands for each driver. There is only a single amp stage in this configuration, hence the name.

Bi-amp configurations put the crossover first, splitting the incoming audio signal into two frequency bands (for 2-way monitors). Each of the two bands is then amplified by its own power amplifier before reaching/driving the monitor drivers.

Tri-amp configurations are built on the same signal chain as the bi-amp configuration, but the signal is split three ways (for 3-way monitors).

Bi-amp and tri-amp designs tend to have a flatter frequency response and greater definition since more design detail is put into each driver, which improves performance.

To learn more about speaker crossovers, check out my article What Is A Speaker Crossover Network? (Active & Passive).

Active Studio Monitors

Though active monitors are subject to the amplification configurations mentioned above, they are certainly more convenient than their passive counterparts. The power amp and crossover are built into their design, meaning there’s no need for external devices. This not only saves space and cable runs but if we consider the design of the monitor, the amplifier(s) and crossover should have the ideal specifications to match the monitor’s drivers.

Active monitors are heavier and more expensive than their passive counterparts but are more popular due to their simplicity within the studio setup.

A Note On Power Specifications

Regardless of whether we choose an active or passive pair of monitors, we should consider the power rating. The greater the power rating, the more output level the monitors can produce.

With active monitors, the power amp is built-in, and the specs will not how much power is available to each driver. Also, note the maximum SPL (sound pressure level) measured at 1 meter from the monitor. If the specification is in reference to a single monitor, you can add 3 dB to that total to account for the fact you’ll be using a pair of monitors.

With passive monitors, the power handling specification will show the maximum power the monitors can handle (typically per driver) from the external power amp and crossover. This spec is usually given as peak wattage. Surpassing this maximum could lead to damage to the monitor.

This power handling specification will help us in matching passive monitors to power amplifiers. It’s also worth considering the maximum SPL for passive monitors to know their limits.

Though it’s great to crank up the monitors every once in a while to hear your mixes and loud levels, it’s actually better for health (hearing damage and ear fatigue) and overall mix quality (ear fatigue, enhanced bass response) to mix at lower levels.

To learn more about monitor/speaker power specifications, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
Complete Guide To Speaker Power Handling & Wattage Ratings
Why Do Loudspeakers Need Power & How Are They Powered?
Complete Guide To Power Amplifier Specifications & Data

Consider the following table, which shows the published data from the NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) and the OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) regarding safe listening times at defined dB SPL:

NIOSH Standard (dBA)Equivalent Sound Pressure Level (at 1 kHz)Maximum Exposure Time LimitOSHA Standard (dBA)Equivalent Sound Pressure Level (at 1 kHz)
127 dBA127 dB SPL
44.8 Pa
1 second160 dBA160 dB SPL
2.00 kPa
124 dBA124 dB SPL
31.7 Pa
3 seconds155 dBA155 dB SPL
1.12 kPa
121 dBA121 dB SPL
22.4 Pa
7 seconds150 dBA150 dB SPL
632 Pa
118 dBA118 dB SPL
12.6 Pa
14 seconds145 dBA145 dB SPL
356 Pa
115 dBA115 dB SPL
11.2 Pa
28 seconds140 dBA140 dB SPL
200 Pa
112 dBA112 dB SPL
7.96 Pa
56 seconds135 dBA135 dB SPL
112 Pa
109 dBA109 dB SPL
5.64 Pa
1 minute 52 seconds130 dBA130 dB SPL
63.2 Pa
106 dBA106 dB SPL
3.99 Pa
3 minutes 45 seconds125 dBA125 dB SPL
35.6 Pa
103 dBA103 dB SPL
2.83 Pa
7 minutes 30 seconds120 dBA120 dB SPL
20.0 Pa
100 dBA100 dB SPL
2.00 Pa
15 minutes115 dBA115 dB SPL
11.2 Pa
97 dBA97 dB SPL
1.42 Pa
30 minutes110 dBA110 dB SPL
6.32 Pa
94 dBA94 dB SPL
1.00 Pa
1 hour105 dBA105 dB SPL
3.56 Pa
91 dBA91 dB SPL
0.71 Pa
2 hours100 dBA100 dB SPL
2.00 Pa
88 dBA88 dB SPL
0.50 Pa
4 hours95 dBA95 dB SPL
1.12 Pa
85 dBA85 dB SPL
0.36 Pa
8 hours90 dBA90 dB SPL
0.63 Pa
82 dBA82 dB SPL
0.25 Pa
16 hours85 dBA85 dB SPL
0.36 Pa

Related My New Microphone article:
What Are The Differences Between Passive & Active Speakers?

Back to the Table Of Contents.


Studio Monitor Size

Though we’ve already gone into detail about monitor size, I’d like to include this section anyway.

Once again, here are my recommendations for driver size:

  • Under 150 ft2 (14 m2): 5″ monitors or smaller – choose near-field monitors
  • Between 150 ft2 (14 m2) and 270 ft2 (25 m2): 5″ to 8″ monitors – choose near-field monitors
  • Over 270 ft2 (25 m2): 8″ monitors or larger choose near-field, mid-field or far-field monitors

When dealing with near-field (and even mid-field) monitors, the driver sizes are important to note relative to our room size.

It’s also worth considering the actual physical dimensions of the monitors as a whole. Will they fit on isolation pads on your desk, or will you need proper stands? How big should the stands be to accommodate the monitor footprints and allow for optimal height at the listening position?

The questions above are worth asking.

Back to the Table Of Contents.


Studio Monitor Frequency Response

We touched on studio monitor frequency response in previous sections of this article. Let’s reiterate a few points and discuss frequency response a bit further.

Frequency response refers to the frequency-dependent sensitivity of the studio monitor. In other words, how well the monitor will respond to and reproduce the frequencies of the incoming audio signal.

Frequency response specifications are generally given as a range from the lowest frequency the monitor can produce effectively and the highest frequency the monitor can produce effectively. The tolerance is often given as a plus/minus dB value (±3 dB, for example).

More accurate frequency response specifications are given on a performance graph, where frequencies (Hz) are along the x-axis, and relative output (dB) is along the y-axis. A response line is graphed to show the relative output across all frequencies of the monitor’s response.

These graphs tell us the frequencies at which the monitor will be most and least sensitive and the regions where sensitivity rolls off completely.

To produce the most accurate response possible, in theory, would mean the frequency response graph is perfectly flat. No frequencies would be over or under-represented, and the monitor would reproduce audio perfectly.

However, as discussed, real-world acoustics must be taken into account since monitors produce sound waves in an acoustic environment.

The reflections and resonances of the room won’t alter the frequency response of the monitors themselves. Still, they will alter how we ultimately hear the sound from the monitors within the listening environment.

Furthermore, positioning the monitors close to the wall will increase the perceived bass. This is because bass frequencies are fairly omnidirectional (they propagate in all directions at once). A quick reflection off a close wall will effectively add volume to the bass frequencies of the incoming sound waves.

Bass frequencies are also tricky to tame acoustically due to their long wavelengths. The lower the bass frequencies, the longer the wavelength and, therefore, the larger the bass traps must be to absorb them. Furthermore, bass wavelengths will often match the distance between two parallel surfaces in a room (two walls, the floor and ceiling, etc.) and cause standing resonant waves.

Even in acoustically treated spaces, bass frequencies can be a nuisance.

For that reason, it may actually be a good thing to choose a smaller monitor with less sensitivity or capability in its low-end frequency response. Pushing this point further, monitors with adjustable high-pass filters may also be worth considering to help tune their bass response to your room.

If the bass ends up lacking, an additional subwoofer can be included to cover the low-end frequencies when needed for mixing.

Back to the Table Of Contents.


Styles Of Studio Monitor Enclosures

The enclosure type in the studio monitor design will also affect its frequency response. These enclosures can be categorized as sealed or ported.

Sealed Studio Monitor Enclosures

Sealed monitor enclosures, as their name suggests, are completely sealed off. Because the rear sound is completely trapped, sealed monitors are inherently inefficient and only produce half their potential in terms of output level.

That being said, sealed enclosures tend to offer a tighter, more accurate frequency response and a more direct sound, especially at the more directional mid and high frequencies. They’re also easier to design and often cost less.

Ported Studio Monitor Enclosures

Ported monitor enclosures, as their name suggests, are ported in the front and/or back. They allow sound to emanate from the front and/or the rear and are more efficient (louder) than their sealed counterparts.

The acoustic labyrinth design within a ported monitor largely depends on the monitor’s design requirements. However, nearly all ported designs extend the low-end frequency response, making these enclosure types more capable of producing bass.

I’ll bring up monitor positioning again. Placing ported monitors close to a wall or surface can really affect the perceived sound and frequency response, as all frequencies are emitted to the rear of the monitor in addition to the front. Placement of ported monitors, then, becomes an even bigger deal than it is with sealed monitors.

Related My New Microphone article:
Why Do Loudspeakers Need Enclosures?

Back to the Table Of Contents.


What About A Subwoofer?

Let’s talk about low-end frequencies once again. They’re super important, but how important are they for monitoring purposes? Do you need a subwoofer?

Let’s reiterate how bass frequencies act within a room. These low-end frequencies have longer wavelengths, which take space to develop fully and can cause resonances between parallel surfaces and within objects in the room.

For example, the lowest frequency on the audible spectrum (though we can barely hear it, naturally) is 20 Hz. If we take the speed of sound to be 343 m/s, then 20 Hz has a wavelength of 17.15 m (56 ft). That’s a long distance to develop!

So subwoofers may actually cause more harm than good in small rooms where the bass frequencies don’t fully develop and interfere with other frequencies.

But even in large, treated rooms, a dedicated subwoofer may or may not be necessary.

Think about what you’re mixing and what you plan on mixing.

If you’re producing songs to be played at an EDM festival, you may need to invest in a subwoofer (and a room) that can accurately produce the low-end.

If you’re mixing a movie, you’ll definitely need to be able to monitor the low-end accurately.

However, for a lot of music and multimedia, foregoing the subwoofer is perfectly fine. The low-end frequencies are often non-essential. Just be sure to high-pass tracks/signals if you’re unsure of what’s going on in the sub-bass range, as it can reduce headroom and affect the mix in playback systems that do have subwoofers.

That all being said, the beautiful thing about a subwoofer is that you can turn it off. Perhaps the best bet is to invest in a solid subwoofer and only use it when it’s necessary.

Related My New Microphone article:
Top 11 Best Subwoofer Brands (Car, PA, Home & Studio)

Back to the Table Of Contents.


Know The Additional Costs Of Studio Monitor Accessories

Studio Monitor Stands/Pads

Studio monitors often require stands or pads to optimize their position (especially height) and to mechanically isolate them from the bulk of the studio (the desk, for example).

Studio Monitor Cables

When connecting studio monitors to your setup (to the audio interface, power amplifier or another device), you’ll need cables.

For active monitors, XLR cables and 1/4″ (6.35mm) TRS cables are common for balanced audio, while 1/8″ (3.5mm) TRS is less common. RCA isn’t that popular for high-end models but is used for unbalanced audio in some monitors.

Additionally, for active monitors that accept digital audio, XLR is again a popular option, though this time for the AES3 standard. BNC can also be used for digital audio connections, though this is rare.

Passive studio monitors will require speaker wire to connect to their appropriate power amplifier. These monitors often have binding posts or push terminals and require cables with compatible connectors.

Binding posts are flexible, allowing connection with bare wire, pin connectors, spade connectors, banana plugs, and dual banana plugs.

Related articles:
Top 11 Best XLR Cable Brands In The World
Differences Between 2.5mm, 3.5mm & 6.35mm Headphone Jacks

Back to the Table Of Contents.


This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.

Arthur

Arthur is the owner of Fox Media Tech and author of My New Microphone. He's an audio engineer by trade and works on contract in his home country of Canada. When not blogging on MNM, he's likely hiking outdoors and blogging at Hikers' Movement (hikersmovement.com) or composing music for media. Check out his Pond5 and AudioJungle accounts.

Recent Posts