Choosing the right speakers

You put a lot of time and effort into getting your music to sound good, so you should also know the basics when choosing a set of speakers or monitors for your studio!

Keep away!

The first topic of interest here is identifying what you want to stay away from and that will make it easier to narrow it down to what you do want to buy. This whole heading can be summed up in one word: near field monitors. Well ok that’s three, but whose counting? Near field monitors get their name from two places. One is that you place them close to you computer monitor and they are specially shielded so the magnets in the speaker won’t interfere with your display, in practice that only really effects old “TV” style (CRT) computer monitors so it’s sort of a moot point these days with LCD monitors. But it’s a good thing to keep in mind regardless. The other reason they get their name from is that they tend to be of smaller size and work better being placed closer in proximity to the listener, hence “near field”.

So why should you stay away from these? Well, because all they really are is fancy computer speakers and they don’t work any better than anything you could pick up at a regular computer store. The only difference is that they are made by the big name companies and are sold right on the same shelf as all their other speakers and they are usually cheaper too.

Well, speakers are speakers right? They make sound and they are affordable, so why shouldn’t you buy a set of near field monitors?

The answer is pretty clear.

The main thing you want to look for in a speaker (also called a monitor, not to be confused with your computer’s monitor) is transparency. The term refers to the ability of the speaker to reproduce the sound exactly as it was made. You may think that’s the speaker’s job to begin with, but that’s not exactly true. Each speaker has the ability to accentuate and distort sound by the way it’s built and the components that went into making it.

When you’re writing music on your computer, keyboard or other device, you’re working with audio in it’s raw state. That means that you haven’t artificially altered the sound in anyway. Near field monitors aren’t good at working with that sort of sound. What they are good at is reproducing sound that has been compressed and limited. That’s basically any sort of commercially available music or audio that you would find in everything from MP3s, CDs and video games. I won’t be going into detail about that in this article, but please feel free to read up on loudness wars for some background info.

Keep it simple.

Let’s look at some of the basics in picking a good monitor. The best thing you can be aware of when choosing one is to keep it simple. You’ll probably want self powered speakers at either 50 or 100 watts of power. Power ratings are usually divided by 2, so a 50 watt pair would run at 25 watts per speaker. Stay away from speakers that come advertised with things like line in for MP3 players, bass enhancing or reflexing technology or ports, or built in dynamically enhanced internal cross over circuitry. If you see anything like that, it’s a good bet that it’s a near field speaker.

A monitor in simplest terms is two things: a speaker, or pair of speakers (a woofer and a tweeter) and a cabinet, which is also sometimes called an enclosure. If we go back to a bit of highschool science, we know that smaller things produce higher frequencies sounds and the opposite is true for larger things. Hence a tweeter is the smallest speaker within the monitor and the woofer (or subwoofer) is the largest.

Now be careful when choosing a speaker size, I think it’s best to stay with either a 6 or 8 inch woofer. Too many monitor systems put too much emphasis on the wrong thing; either people tend to get tiny speakers you put on the dekstop and then a giant subwoofer you tuck away under your desk or people tend to opt for lager subwoofers (10 or 12 inch) up on the desk.

The problem with this kind of thinking is a matter of simple physics. Lower sounds have longer wavelengths (remember our highschool science again) and a typical bass sound coming out of a 10 inch speaker would have a wavelength of anywhere from 5 – 9 feet long. Now considering at most you’re sitting only 3 feet from the speaker, you’d have to sit on the opposite side of the room to hear the music accurately. This is also the same reason why those “boom” cars tend to sound louder or lower the further you are away from them. The same is true for powered sub woofers in boxes, but they should also be avoided because most of them use a system of internal tubes and baffles to artificially accentuate the bass.

Of course that’s a bit besides the problem because both setups seem to ignore the fact the most common speaker size found in a variety of audio systems in everything from bookshelf to car stereos is either a 6 or 8 inch speaker. By keeping this mind when you’re looking for monitors you’ll be saving money over the bigger speakers and you’ll be using the exact same speaker size people will be listening to your music on.

Tip – When working on music don’t over do it on the bass by using excessive compression or EQing! You want it to sound nice and solid, but be aware you aren’t going to get a big drop or hit. Those lower frequencies are still in the audio signal even though the monitor can’t reproduce them, so don’t be tempted to overcompensate your mix.

Sound design.

The next topic we’ll be moving on to is the cabinet or enclosure. Traditionally, cabinets made out of solid wood have been the best material of choice. Speakers are designed by the manufacturer to operate within the specific volume of air contained inside of the speaker cabinet. In contrast, if the speaker cabinet were made out of something soft, it would flex as the speaker vibrates, thereby changing the volume of air within the cabinet and distorting the sound.

And yes, I know most monitors have a hole in the back! That’s perfectly ok as long as it’s not part of a larger porting or baffling system.

So, all in all, how do you know if a monitor is any good? These days monitor cabinets are made out of a variety of materials from wood to plastics and composite materials, so you can’t exactly use a rule of thumb here. The best test in my opinion is to play some uncompressed audio through them and see how they respond. A good test is to record yourself in at a good level reading a paragraph or two while speaking slowly and using proper annunciation. Record this down as a wav file onto your mp3 player or cell phone and take it to the store with you.

When you test you monitors, pay attention to how strong it sounds. A good monitor should be able to reproduce the sound accurately at both low and high volumes. Pay attention to all three of the main sound frequency ranges: low, mid and high. Ts and Ss should be crisp and sharp while the rest of the sound should be strong and clean throughout the mids and lows. Also, pay close attention to the amount of vibration coming from the cabinet. One that vibrates too much is a sign of an overworked speaker and it will make an obvious muffled or distorted sound in the mid and low ranges.

As they say, them’s the ropes! However don’t be scared off from the pricetag of a good set of monitors. They are well worth the cost, but if you can’t afford it right away, a good set of monitoring headphones can fill the gap until you can get some and they’re handy to have for those late night sessions!

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