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Studio Monitors Part 1: Monitor Hype
By Glen Stephan on August 22 2008 04:00 PM | Permalink | Author Info
Nearfield studio monitors are arguably the most important purchase decision the average project studio owner will make. Yet the noise of myth and misunderstanding surrounding the subject is deafening. In this series the author hopes to de-mystify and de-myth-ify the subject of studio monitors. Starting off in Part 1: What does it mean - or perhaps not really mean - when a speaker is officially labeled as a "studio monitor"?

Studio monitor. That has a wonderful ring to it, doesn’t it? In the field of audio production, perhaps no other two words combined roll off the tongue with the combination of elegance, magic and power of the phrase “studio monitor”.

For we all know that studio monitors are no mere mortal loudspeakers. No, they are a cut above, up in the refined air of sound reproduction where extreme pains are taken to design a monitor that has an extremely flat frequency response at every frequency and is meant not to sound good, but rather to tell the brutal and honest truth about our mixes. If it is designed to be a studio monitor, it may not always be perfect, but it will be a cut above your average consumer-grade loudspeaker in this regard.

Consumer-grade loudspeakers, on the other hand, are either the little toy speakers we put on our computers and MP3 players, or they are home-entertainment-centered audiophile speakers purposely designed to sound pleasant no matter what we pump through them. They are “hyped” at the low end and high end of the spectrum to sound artificially good and to save our ears from the nasty truth of a bad mix. This makes them totally different from and - for our purposes – inferior to the almighty “studio monitor”.

There’s only one problem with this clash of the classes description of the music loudspeaker world.

It’s not real.

It’s a false prejudice perpetrated mostly by those who with to market and sell studio monitors to the exploding home studio market.

THE REALITY

Most manufacturers of music loudspeakers - whether those loudspeakers are going to be marketed for the home stereo or the home studio – have a single goal in mind: to design and build the most accurate-sounding product they can within a certain design budget and retail price range, using the materials and suppliers they have available to them, and to do so at a satisfactory profit margin. And whether “studio monitor” or “home speaker”, the manufacturers have equal amounts of success and failure in achieving that goal.

  With very few exceptions, home speakers are not “hyped” any more than studio monitors. The expensive audiophile speakers always talk about striving for “transparency”. Loudspeaker Comparison ChartIn the studio we call that “flat”. And the cheaper home speakers? Well, any such alleged “hyping” would cost money to design and build in, and they no longer would be cheaper.

  As for studio monitors, “flatness” and “truth” are very relative terms. If one can buy a studio monitor that’s flat and truthful for $149, then what’s the point of buying the one that sells for $1499? If this $600 studio monitor is so flat and truthful, then how come half the people love it and the other half hate it, yet that $600 monitor they feel exactly the opposite about, causing Internet forum thread arguments a mile long?

In reality, there are just as many colors of sound coming out of speakers marketed as “studio monitors” as there are out of “home speakers”, and “truth” in this context has a couple of different definitions.

THE EVIDENCE

To illustrate this point, I have put together a chart of loudspeakers (Fig. 1, left), about half of them popular nearfield studio monitors and about half of them popular bookshelf-sized “home entertainment” speakers of similar form-factor to nearfields. Selections for each class of speaker range from entry-level models to top-shelf quality, with prices ranging from seventy bucks to a few thousand dollars. I have even thrown in one over-the-top-of-the-line audiophile tower system (the Martin Logan), just for comparison. Other than designing a list with the criteria I just mentioned, I have chosen exact model numbers quite randomly from the list of most available and most popular models out on the market. No attempt has been made to ferret out any specific models that just so happen to support any one viewpoint on this subject.

This chart lists the speakers by their frequency response specifications. These specifications have been gathered from the manufacturer’s own specification sheets and response graphs. Where such information was not available (which was rare), reliable third-party test data was used.

There are two important parts to the specifications: the frequency range (e.g. 50Hz-20kHz), and the margin of variance (e.g. ± 3dB). Neither part of the spec has much meaning without including the other.

The speakers are roughly listed from top to bottom in descending order of spec quality, with the widest and flattest frequency responses on the top, and the narrowest and loosest frequency responses on the bottom. There can be some nit-picking as to the exact order of some of the models, depending upon whether one should treat low-frequency extension or high-frequency extension more importantly or whether overall response or flatness of response is more important, but as is, the chart gives a pretty good overall snapshot of the situation.

THE ANALYSIS

So, what does this chart tell us? To be clear, it doesn’t actually tell us what any given speaker sounds like; no more than a description of  “a tall white male, 6’2”, about 200 pounds with short black hair, a narrow face and solid build” tells us what a person actually looks like. But it does give us enough information to make some valid conclusions about some of the myths and hype we always hear about this subject:

Myth # 1: There’s a big difference between “studio monitors” and “home speakers”.

False. The chart shows a rather random and even distribution between the two classes of speakers; there is no gravitation of one class of speaker towards the bottom or the top.

Myth #2: Home speakers tend to be hyped in the bass or treble.

False. Of the five speakers listed with the lowest end to the frequency response, four of them are studio monitors and one is the reference tower speaker. Of the five with the highest end to the frequency response, four of them are studio monitors. And of the five with the widest variance in the response, four of them are studio monitors.

Myth # 3: Studio monitors tend to have flat frequency response.

False. As mentioned above, of the five with the widest variance in the response, four of them are studio monitors.

THE TRUE HYPE

Again, these specifications only give a very rough outline of how any given speaker performs, but they don’t tell us what the speaker is actually doing within that frequency range and within those few dBs plus or minus of range, but by now we should have the solid idea that no two speakers are going to sound the same - in either class. Heck, they don’t even sound the same within the same brand of speaker (look at the big difference between the Genelecs or the KRKs, for example.)  And we should know that some home speakers could serve just fine as “studio monitors”, and vice versa, and others probably can’t.

The only real hype in loudspeakers is that which comes from the sales and marketing people whose job it is the convince us to buy their product. And one sure fire way is to build a loudspeaker and stick that magical, powerful phrase “studio monitor” on the box.

So just what is the truth? Which studio monitors are actually more “truthful” than others? Which ones are truly flatter, and which ones are more colored? Which ones are more deserving of that moniker and which ones are sales hype? That’s what we’ll talk about more the next time in .


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