| Author: Unlisted | Source: attackmagazine.com |
A guide to our favorite studio monitors, from the best budget models to our pick of money-no-object dream speakers.
You should always be skeptical when you hear someone make definitive sweeping judgments about something as nuanced as music production gear. Objectively there’s no such thing as ‘the best cheap studio monitors’ or ‘the best monitors for producing dance music’. Top choices depend on budget, personal preferences over sonic characteristics and, to some extent, the type of music you’re making (although it’s a fair assumption that producers of most varieties of dancefloor-focused electronic music have roughly similar requirements in terms of transparency and full-range frequency response).
Those caveats aside, this list contains a selection of nearfield monitors which we’d strongly recommend checking out if you’re in the market for a new pair – a totally subjective guide to our favorites, from budget models right up to money-no-object dream speakers. They’re certainly not the only options we’d consider in each of their respective price ranges, but these are the models we’d recommend as starting points.
There are models here to suit every pocket and every taste, but remember that spending more money isn’t necessarily a guarantee that you’ll find a better pair of monitors for your own requirements. Pick any pair of expensive speakers and we pretty much guarantee you’ll be able to find one group of producers and engineers who think they’re amazing and another who thinks they’re awful.
#1. PreSonus Eris E5
Price (pair): $290.00
Design: 2-way ported
Woofer: 5.25-inch Kevlar cone
Tweeter: 1-inch silk dome
Frequency response: 53 Hz – 22 kHz
We can’t recommend too many monitors below the £200 price point. Options around £150 are much better than they used to be, but it’s impossible to ignore the fact that you get a lot more value for money if you spend a little more.
The point where you start getting great value for money is around the £250 mark, which is still relatively affordable for most beginners but allows you to choose from a number of good options. (If there’s absolutely no way for your budget to stretch to this level, take a look at the second-hand market before plumping for a cheaper model. A well-loved pair of pre-owned monitors will give years of service and there are always bargains to be had as producers upgrade and sell old gear.)
With that in mind, our first recommendations are PreSonus’s Eris E5. PreSonus is a Louisiana-based company probably best known for audio interfaces and preamps. The fact that the Eris E5s (and their bigger brothers, the equally impressive E8s) are their first offering in the world of studio monitors is seriously impressive.
The Eris E5s are remarkable value for money. What sets them apart from most other options at this price point is that they don’t attempt to offer a hyped, flattering sound. They won’t blow you away with the deep bass response and searingly bright highs. They won’t blast your eardrums with obscene sound pressure levels. They won’t make everything sound amazing. Instead, they’ll do exactly what a true reference monitor should do: provide a clear, revealing and accurate impression of your music with relatively flat frequency response.
At this price, we have no hesitation recommending them to anyone wanting to get into dance music production.
#2. KRK Rokit 5 G3
Price (pair): $280
Design: 2-way ported
Woofer: 5-inch aramid glass composite cone
Tweeter: 1-inch soft dome
Frequency response: 45 Hz – 35 kHz
The obvious alternative to a flat, unhyped monitor like the Eris E5 is something a little less restrained. But hang on a minute – weren’t we just saying the flat, neutral sound of the E5s was one of its main selling points? Yes, but hear us out, because there’s a slightly different approach which many people prefer…
No matter your budget, any monitor choice is going to involve some kind of compromise. At the more affordable end of the price range, that’s especially important. Around the £250 point, it’s just not possible to get a speaker which will offer a truly flat frequency response, revealing clarity and super deep bass extension.
KRK’s enduringly popular Rokit series offers a slightly different balance of priorities when compared to more clinical models like the Eris E5s. We can’t pretend the Rokit 5s are the flattest monitors in the world. They’re a little hyped in the lows and highs, with a less revealing mid-range than the Eris E5s. They might not be as accurate as more expensive monitors, but what they do offer is an impressively deep bass extension for a speaker in this category and, for want of a better word, vibe.
The new third-generation model offers improved high-frequency clarity and a much more versatile array of options for tuning the frequency response of the monitors to match the acoustics of your studio space.
The Rokits are accurate enough to get a good idea of what’s going on in your mix, but at the same time, their impressive bass extension and slightly hyped sound make them very enjoyable to use. These are monitors with an exuberant character, which makes them fun to use, and, deep into the tenth hour of an exhausting mix, isn’t that a good thing? Making music should be fun, especially if you’re starting out. It’s no coincidence that the Rokits are so popular with producers starting out.
#3. Equator Audio D5
Price (pair): $450
Design: 2-way ported, concentric setup with DSP
Woofer: 5.25-inch polypropylene cone
Tweeter: 1-inch silk dome
Frequency response: 53 Hz – 20 kHz
The Equator D5s are the odd one out in our list for a couple of reasons. Firstly, they’re the only monitors here to use a coaxial configuration for the two drivers: that is, the tweeter is in the center of the mid-bass driver, a design that is intended to optimize stereo imaging. Secondly, they’re the only monitors here which use digital signal processing (DSP) to achieve a clearer, more accurate sound than more traditional designs would allow.
The D5s are part of Equator’s budget D series range, based on similar principles to the much more expensive – and very highly rated – Q series. The basic principles are relatively simple. In Equator’s own words: “What is the main reason for a bad mix? Lack of detail in the midrange during production.” In response to that observation, Equator as a brand prize mid-range clarity above all else, seeking to achieve sound reproduction which is free of phase distortion, exceptionally flat through the key mid-range frequencies and perfectly matched between the two monitors for a pin-point accurate stereo image.
We won’t pretend to understand every last detail of the complex DSP which Equator employ in order to achieve these aims (if you have the inclination you can immerse yourself in it here), but the end results speak for themselves. These are highly revealing speakers that allow you to focus on every aspect of a mix. They’re also astonishingly good value, especially if you live in the US, where you can buy directly from the Equator with free shipping.
The downside? A slight lack of bottom-end extension and overall oomph. If you’re looking for monitors to shake the walls, the D5s aren’t right for you. But in terms of their ability to reveal detail and make mix decisions such as subtle changes to EQ and compression easier, they can’t be beaten at this price point.
#4. Yamaha HS8
Price (pair): $520
Design: 2-way ported
Woofer: 8-inch cone
Tweeter: 1-inch dome
Frequency response: 46 Hz – 24 kHz*
Yamaha’s HS series are seen by some as the long-awaited successor to the company’s ubiquitous NS10M studio monitors, which came onto the market way back in 1978 and can still be found in countless commercial studios to this day. In a way, that’s slightly unfair on the HS.
The NS10 is still fiercely defended by its ranks of devotees, but the notoriously uneven frequency response and poor low-frequency extension make it an eccentric choice at best for the demands of modern dance music production. Sure, there are plenty of producers who know them inside out – and there are few monitors as revealing in the midrange – but 35 years on there are much more suitable options for electronic music makers.
The HS8 is an altogether more modern proposition, with a flat frequency response and impressively tight and deep bottom end. The original HS80M, released back in 2006, was impressive in its own right and the new HS8 is essentially an updated version of the same monitor, with slightly improved drivers and a redesigned cabinet. We prefer the HS8 over the smaller HS7 for its deeper bass response without sacrificing mid-range clarity. (The HS7s and HS5s are still good options if your budget won’t stretch to the larger model.)
So, a modern equivalent of the NS10? Not really. A different monitor with a much more contemporary sound which is far more useful for dance music production. But we will concede that the iconic white cone on the woofer is a nostalgic throwback to the NS10’s glory days.
* Yamaha quote the HS8’s frequency response as 38Hz–30kHz at the -10dB points. We’ve used third-party measurements to get a more accurate impression of the frequency response for comparison with the standard -3dB measurements used by other manufacturers.
#5. Adam A7X
Price (pair): $890
Design: 2-way ported
Woofer: 7-inch carbon/rohacell/glass fibre cone
Tweeter: X-ART ribbon
Frequency response: 42 Hz – 50 kHz
New technology has always been an important factor in driving the development of studio monitors, but it’s not enough just to throw a couple of state-of-the-art pieces of tech at a speaker and hope for the best. It takes a cohesive, balanced design to create something genuinely special, regardless of the individual components.
The futuristic-sounding X-ART ribbon tweeter used in Adam’s A7X monitors is an excellent example of high-tech done well. The tweeter offers outrageously impressive specs on paper, but it’s the fact that it’s built into a well-designed speaker which gives it the chance to (literally) shine.
One thing always stands out when looking at the specs of Adam’s monitors: the ribbon tweeter’s frequency response extends so high that the speaker as a whole stays flat all the way up to 50 kHz – way beyond the upper limit of human hearing. That might seem unnecessary, but it reflects the fact that the X-ART tweeter is exceptionally clean and flat. As a result, the A7Xs are incredibly detailed in the parts of the frequency range which you can hear. Lower frequencies are equally revealing, with a solid bass response for a 7-inch woofer and a clear, precise response to fast transients and complex material.
The A7X is part of a new breed of monitors that work particularly well for electronic music. Some people find them a little forward and brash, but others appreciate their open, revealing honesty and exceptional stereo imaging. In fact, the Adams are such good value at this price point that we’d rank them alongside more expensive models like Dynaudio’s BM6As and Focal’s CMS 65s.
#6. Genelec M040
Price (pair): $1210
Design: 2-way ported
Woofer: 6.5-inch cone
Tweeter: 1-inch metal dome
Frequency response: 48 Hz – 20 kHz
Genelec’s monitors have never been in doubt sonically, but in recent years they’ve lost ground slightly in terms of price as their rivals have developed increasingly affordable products. The likes of the classic 8000 series are still excellent monitors, but with such good value for money to be found elsewhere, it’s unsurprising that Genelec has retaliated with something a little cheaper. The recently introduced M series addresses the issue in simple terms: this is a more affordable Genelec range which sacrifices very little in the way of sonics.
Pitched as the first product in Genelec’s new Music Creation series, the M040s and the smaller, cheaper M030s are aimed squarely at home studios, smaller project studios, and music makers. The M040s have still got that characteristic Genelec sound: bright and forward, some might even say a little flattering but undeniably revealing. The compromises Genelec has made to bring the price down all make sense in the context of smaller studios. In comparison to the highly regarded 8040s, the most notable difference is that the M040s sacrifice a little bit of bottom-end response and overall volume.
The 8040s also offer a slightly more versatile array of tone controls, but it’s worth noting one feature of the M series which makes them more suitable in the typical home studio: the downward-facing port means that placement near walls becomes much less of an issue than with the rearward-facing port of the 8000 series.
The M040s also include a number of interesting eco-friendly features: natural composite construction, efficient class D amps, and Genelec’s intelligent signal sensing feature, which switches the amps automatically to a low-power standby mode when not in use; all of these may not be selling points exactly, but a refreshing nod to environmental friendliness is welcome (and disappointingly absent in much of the field of pro audio tech).
Overall, the M040 offers a sensible series of compromises that reduce costs while retaining all of the best characteristics of the Genelec sound. The M040s punch above their weight at this price point. At the time of writing, they’ve only been on sale a few months, but expect to see a lot of these in studios over the next few years as more people realize what they have to offer.
# 7. Neumann KH 120
Price (pair): $1345
Design: 2-way ported
Woofer: 5.25-inch composite cone
Tweeter: 1-inch titanium fabric dome
Frequency response: 52 Hz – 21 kHz
Klein + Hummel was synonymous with quality studio equipment. The company, founded in 1945, operated continuously until its brand name was sadly retired at the beginning of 2010 by its current owners, the Sennheiser group. Sennheiser also owns Neumann – best known for world-class microphones – and the spirit of the K+H brand lives on in the prefix of Neumann’s KH monitor range.
The KH 120 can be considered Neumann’s replacement for the excellent K+H O110, a similar 2-way design which won a lot of fans for its accurate sound. These aren’t hyped, bright speakers which flatter the material, but precise reference monitors in the old-fashioned sense, offering a flat, accurate representation of music. If the Genelecs are bright and forward, the Neumanns are more restrained; not necessarily better or worse, but a different type of sound which some producers prefer.
K+H and Neumann speakers are the unsung heroes of the monitor world – at least outside their home country. German producers frequently rave about them, and that’s not just due to favouritism for home-grown products. We’ve never quite been able to figure out why they rarely seem to inspire the same level of devotion outside Germany, but it’s an anomaly which needs to be rectified as these are truly top quality monitors. (Incidentally, the story of monitors adored in their home-country of Germany but little known outside is shared by the wonderful ME Geithain line of speakers, including the sublime RL 901k – circa £12,000 – and the more affordable RL 906 – £2,900.)
The larger KH 310s are also well worth checking out if you’ve got a room big enough to do justice to the three-way design. James Holden spoke very highly of their predecessors, the O 300s, when we interviewed him back in June.
#8. Event Opal
Price (pair): $2350
Design: 2-way ported
Woofer: 8-inch paper/carbon fibre cone
Tweeter: 1-inch aluminium-magnesium alloy dome
Frequency response: 35 Hz – 22 kHz
When Rode Microphones founder Peter Freedman acquired Event Electronics in 2006, he immediately set his team of engineers the challenge of developing the best 2-way monitors in the world. The result was the Opal, a monitor which instantly caused a stir when it was unveiled in 2008.
Event are keen to stress the technical details of the Opals: the fact that every part is proprietary, designed from scratch specifically for this application with absolutely nothing bought off-the-shelf; the X-Coil woofer’s unusual combination of active and passive voice coils for fast transient response; the staggeringly low distortion specs.
Of course, in the studio, what matters is how they sound, and spend a couple of hours with the Opals and it’s obvious you’re in the presence of something rather special. The pin-point accuracy all the way through the frequency range is astonishing. The bass response is particularly impressive, answering the age-old “do I need a sub?” question with a resounding no.
What’s most impressive about the Opals is how incredibly well they handle electronic music. Too many monitors at this price point struggle with the unique challenges of electronic music and show their weaknesses when asked to reproduce heavily compressed music full of fast transients. The Opals take it in their stride in a thoroughly impressive way. This is a relatively bright, forward speaker but – thanks in part to that impressively low distortion performance – it doesn’t get fatiguing even over long periods.
The best 2-way monitors in the world? That’s a very bold claim, but they’re definitely in the running.
#9. Focal Twin6 Be
Price (pair): $2800
Design: 3-way ported
Woofer: 6.5-inch composite cone
Mid-range: 6.5-inch composite cone
Tweeter: beryllium inverted dome
Frequency response: 40 Hz – 40 kHz
Focal’s Twin6 Be is quite an unusual design. Where most most 3-way designs use a larger driver for the bass frequencies than the mids, the Twin6 employs 6.5-inch drivers to handle both the midrange and the bass. Comparisons with the more traditional 2-way Solo6 are inevitable, and they quickly reveal that the addition of an extra driver makes a massive difference.
The Twin6s offer a useful reminder of the fact that different monitors suit different personal preferences. Compared to the similarly priced Event Opals, the Focals have a lot in common. They do similar things very well: they both handle electronic music with ease, offer a big soundstage and reveal details without being fatiguing. However, listening to them alongside each other demonstrates just how different their personalities are.
It’s impossible to say that one’s ‘better’ than the other; they’re just different. Some people will prefer the way the Focals sound a little less forward than the Events and perhaps slightly more ugly when the mix isn’t quite right. They expose flaws incredibly well, rather than flattering a bad mix.
It’s an issue that’s worth bearing in mind at any price point. Of our selections here, the Genelec M040s and Neumann KH120s are also similarly priced but very different in character, while the PreSonus Eris E5s and KRK Rokit 5s demonstrate that the same principle applies even with budget models.
The Twin6 Bes would be our first suggestion for anyone seeking exceptional clarity and accuracy with a laid-back, unhyped character.
#10. ATC SCM25A Pro
Price (pair): $8023
Design: 3-way ported (ports can be plugged for unported use)
Woofer: 7-inch carbon/paper cone
Mid-range: 3-inch soft dome
Tweeter: 25mm neodymium soft dome
Frequency response: 47 Hz – 22 kHz
We can’t deny that ATC’s eye-wateringly priced SCM25s are beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest producers, but auditioning these phenomenal monitors will redefine your understanding of what a nearfield can do. We’re not for a minute suggesting that the average home producer is going to consider dropping seven grand on a pair of monitors, but ATC are striving for greatness here; these are true pro monitors, built in the time-honoured engineering tradition of creating the best possible product first then worrying about the price later.
The stunningly tight and accurate bass response is the first thing that hits you: this isn’t just deep or weighty bass; it’s controlled and precise in a way that’s rarely heard. The SCMs won’t flatter a bad kick drum that’s been compressed or distorted to give it weight. They won’t struggle to keep up with complex sub bass interspersed with fast transients. Instead, they’ll simply reveal details of the lower frequencies with ease.
The bass is impressive in its own right but that flat, revealing ultra-clear response continues throughout the frequency range. ATC’s soft dome mid-range drivers are widely lauded for their precision and clarity. In this design they blend seamlessly with the tweeters and woofers at the crossover points, providing a reliable reference which exposes every last detail of your work. Microscopic adjustments to compression and EQ are revealed with incredible clarity. These are monitors which truly expose every last detail of your music.
The ATCs are undeniably expensive in comparison to a lot of very good monitors, but don’t make the mistake of assuming they’re overpriced. Our advice? Only audition them if you’re happy for every other nearfield suddenly to seem inferior.