If you’ve been researching the audio industry for long enough, you might have heard about a specific type of speaker called a studio monitor and wondered what all the fuss is about, especially considering it looks so much like your run-of-the-mill speaker. Is this just a marketing gimmick?
Studio monitors are specifically designed for audio production. Speakers are designed for several different uses, the main one being listening to music. The designs can be similar, but there are specific requirements that need to be met before a device can be considered a studio monitor.
This brief explanation might leave you with more questions than answers, but don’t worry – below, you will find more detailed information about the differences between these two almost identical-looking audio accessories.
Table of Contents
- Are Studio Monitors and Speakers the Same?
- Which Are Better – Studio Monitors or Speakers?
- Studio Monitors vs. Speakers – Everything You Need To Know
- Speakers Are Just Designed Differently
- Why Are Studio Monitors More Expensive Than Speakers?
Are Studio Monitors and Speakers the Same?
Studio monitors and speakers are not the same. The latter is designed to have a sound profile that enhances the sound of music. In contrast, the former is designed to deliver a flatter response, enabling sound engineers to mix music as accurately as possible.
- A flat tone is helpful for mixing.
- Consistent performance at lower volumes.
- They can be used as speakers to an extent.
- Usually require a power source.
- Won’t sound good in large spaces if used as speakers.
- Music might sound flat.
- Usually cost more than speakers.
- Great for a wide range of applications.
- Can enhance the general music listening experience.
- Widely available at almost any price point.
- Not responsive enough for accurate mixing.
- Typically not designed for near-field use.
- Enhances the sound of music but sacrifices clarity.
Which Are Better – Studio Monitors or Speakers?
This all depends on your use case. When making a choice, consider the following:
- If you’re planning to use them for recording, go for monitors.
- For mixing, you can get monitors. Don’t expect them to sound good when hosting your next party, though!
- You might be better off buying speakers if you plan to use them primarily for entertainment. You could invest in an affordable set of monitor headphones as an alternative.
Despite their relatively similar appearance, and the fact that monitors may seem like specialized speakers, this is an oversimplification, and to truly understand the difference between the two, one has to consider the different use cases and specifications.
Studio Monitors vs. Speakers – Everything You Need To Know
While they might look and sound similar to the uninitiated, studio monitors and speakers couldn’t be more different. It’s a lot like how different species evolve in similar ways. They might even share some genetics, but ultimately they are different beasts.
Studio monitors look and act like speakers but are designed for recording engineers to hear audio as clearly as possible, while speakers are designed to make music sound good. You could say that speakers distort the sound in a way that enhances desirable tones.
The differences don’t stop there, but this is the distilled version. Ultimately, monitors are not speakers, but they can be used as such.
On the other hand, speakers can never be used as recording monitors. At best, they can be used as stage monitors, where a musician needs to hear what they and their bandmates are playing.
Which To Use for Recording and Mixing
A sound engineer’s goal is to translate a physical sound wave into a format that can be replayed. Usually, this is done using digital formats that have made audio production more accessible than ever. Often, hobbyists can use equipment they already own and will perhaps have to invest in an interface to record the sound.
When it comes to mixing different sounds, it’s vital that an accurate signal is produced for the engineer to make necessary adjustments. Speakers are designed to sound decent over a large area and at louder volumes, so they may inherently mask problems with the audio and contribute to a poor mix.
Recording engineers will want to set up their speakers at ear level and will not play the sound at overwhelming volumes. Soundproofing may also need to be incorporated to eliminate any acoustic interference contributing to an inaccurate sound.
What Is Interference?
Sound waves behave in the same way as waves on the water – they can combine to either create bigger waves or cancel each other out. This manifests in sound by making some frequencies louder and others quieter because sound waves bounce off hard surfaces like walls and ceilings.
There are different kinds of interference – primary reflection, flutter interference, and background noise are the main types that are problematic to sound engineers. Some specifically-made foams and panels can be employed to resolve any anomalous acoustics.
Soundproofing – Do I Need It for Speakers And Monitors?
You might have seen some of the attractive soundproofing options available while browsing Amazon and be wondering if it will improve your audio experience at all. Many people seem to buy the stuff, as evidenced by the hundreds of reviews you can find on some products.
Soundproofing is almost always necessary when recording using studio monitors, as any interference in the sound can cause problems. Speakers usually sound fine without any. Most audio setups will sound better with correct soundproofing than without.
Near and Far Field
You might hear audiophiles and engineers talking about fields. What they are referring to is the area around a speaker or monitor. Studio monitors, like stage monitors, are designed to be used at closer ranges.
The design of the driver on studio monitors is usually created to project a sound straight ahead. It must produce a clear and accurate sound at volumes tolerable to the human ear. Speakers project at a wider angle; this is why they sound better at larger distances.
If you just want to watch the occasional movie or play the odd game using your studio monitors, they will do fine. Results may vary, though – you might have to sit in a specific position to hear studio monitors properly when using them for entertainment, and you also can’t be too far away.
You might also find your favorite artist’s new album sounding a little dull – perhaps get out your headphones when you want to listen to music.
When it comes to choosing between studio monitors and speakers, this should make it a little more clear why sound engineers need special monitors and favor low-volume, near-field performance.
Passive vs. Active Speakers
You might think that because studio monitors are generally active – that is, they require a power source – they might be more powerful than their plebeian passive counterparts.
Speakers come in all shapes and sizes, and while they might all look pretty similar, there are many subtle differences between these cone-shaped marvels of human ingenuity.
Monitors use active power because their high-impedance drivers require a boosted signal to function optimally. A passive signal just won’t produce a strong enough magnetic field to move the cone.
How about electricity consumption? Is it true that studio monitors use a lot of electricity? Find out the answer in my in-depth guide, where I also compare their power consumption to speakers. Do Studio Monitors Use a Lot of Electricity?
High Impedance Drivers
You might wonder why you would want to use the less power-efficient high-impedance drivers in the first place. What’s the big deal? Isn’t it all about raw power, you might ask?
High-impedance drivers are, for all intents and purposes, the same as speakers, but they offer a better-quality sound. The tradeoff is that they will need to have an amplified signal.
For home use, it’s most convenient to let the amplifier do the work because the audio can also be equalized in the same breath. Home theater speaker systems can employ multiple drivers to create the desired effect.
Low Impedance Drivers
The most common speakers are low impedance, which in some cases, only require a feeble signal to drive. These sometimes don’t sound wonderful but can be pretty helpful. For example, if you want to create a radio that might be used in a survival situation, you’ll want it to require as little power as possible.
If you need to hear or transmit a message with relative clarity, a rude speaker with a low impedance will suffice.
Low-impedance drivers can be driven by a weak signal and do not require a boosted signal. They are cheaper to produce but sacrifice tone and clarity.
Low-impedance drivers are not ideal for studio applications. They are physically incapable of responding in the same ways as their high-impedance counterparts. Try mixing on low-impedance speakers, sometimes – your mix will likely sound flat because the sensitive drivers accentuate bass tones.
Speakers Are Just Designed Differently
While some speakers may resemble studio monitors, the similarities are usually purely cosmetic. If you just want the look, you can get a nice set with lots of modern features, but there is no substitute for a professional monitor if you’re serious about your mixing.
Speakers come in many shapes and sizes because they are used in a variety of applications. They sometimes even come in custom boxes designed for specific applications.
Beginners shouldn’t despair too much; it’s OK to practice mixing on whatever equipment you have. That said, you will, unfortunately, need to invest in a set of studio monitors at some point if you want your recordings to sound their best. Unlike speakers, studio monitors have a fairly standardized form factor.
Indulgent Audio Design
While most speakers these days are designed to fit in with almost any home decor, manufacturers choose sleeker, more understated designs than those of decades past.
Home audio systems weren’t always available to the average consumer and were the exclusive domain of enthusiasts. They did become popular when industrial processes allowed for the mass production of speakers that were often of dubious quality.
Regardless of the quality, there was a growing market for affordable home audio that didn’t sound awful, and the likes of Sony made an everlasting mark on the world by setting a standard that many take for granted today.
Inevitably, competitors arose that offered similar high quality at often even more affordable prices. This doesn’t mean that cheap, poor-quality speakers aren’t still flooding the market, but there has always been a demand for better sound.
The resulting competition for the ears of discerning listeners has driven innovation. This has resulted in some wild and indulgent designs over the years, often with excessive amounts of speakers set in lavish wooden enclosures that were designed to be the centerpiece and talking point of the home.
Lately, there is a preference for a more subtle design that is felt rather than seen, but there are still gorgeous products that will certainly get your friends talking. Some even light up the room with bright LEDs.
Why Are Studio Monitors More Expensive Than Speakers?
There are a few reasons why you’ll have to shell out extra cash when buying monitors. This might leave you scratching your head since you can often get fairly large speakers for a similar price as you would pay for a set of studio monitors.
There is a much bigger market for speakers than there is for studio monitors, which means they are produced in proportionally smaller quantities and are also more expensive to produce because they require higher-quality components.
The active nature of most studio monitors also means that they require more sophisticated internals to first handle the incoming power source and signal, then deliver those through their power-hungry drivers.
This helps explain why there are so many subtle differences between these two devices, the most obvious being the price.
In the end, the main takeaway is that monitors and speakers are used differently – monitors are designed for mixing music in a studio setting, while speakers can be found everywhere from your car to your living room and are mostly used for listening to the finished product.
Fun fact about studio monitors: they pop when you turn them off. Have you ever wondered why that happens? I have the answer, and you can read it in my other article. Click on the link. Why Do Studio Monitors Pop When Being Turned Off?
As you have hopefully learned through the course of this article, speakers and studio monitors are more like distant cousins than twins. They might have a few cosmetic similarities, but they aren’t as closely related as you might have thought initially.
Monitors and speakers are as different as your average consumer is from your average audio engineer. The engineer probably enjoys music just as much, if not more, than anyone else in the room, but has requirements beyond their favorite song sounding good.
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