How to Choose the Best Studio Monitors for Any Home Recording Setup

My first primitive studio efforts took place with a Panasonic cassette recorder. It had a four–inch speaker packed in a hard plastic grill. Needless to say, it didn’t sound good.

From there, I moved up to a Tascam Portastudio with cheap stereo speakers. Eventually, I made my way to Pro Tools and a pair of Alesis Monitor Ones.

My recordings improved with each monitor upgrade I brought into my home studio. It helped my ears to get experience in big studios with everything from Yamaha’s classic NS–10s to hulking Urei 813s that very literally weighed more than I did.

These days, there’s a variety of quality home studio monitors at all price points to help you get great mixes at a good value.

It’s usually a good call to buy new, but if you’re planning on buying used, ask the seller for an estimate of how many hours they were used. There’s no good reason to waste your money on speakers that are well on their way to worn out. Your mixes will suffer in the short term, and you’ll likely find yourself in the market for studio monitors again a lot sooner than you wanted.

Let’s take a look at some monitor lingo and factors to consider before we dive into the best options the monitor market has to offer.

Active vs. Passive Studio Monitors

If you can plug your speakers into the wall and turn them on, they’re active, or powered. If you need a separate amp to drive them, they’re passive.

Passive monitors can work swimmingly if you've got good speakers with a great amp, but active monitors are the easier route to take and have largely been adopted by most engineers in most studios for the sake of convenience.

Though passives may fit better into your budget — especially if you've already got a power amp kicking around — powered speakers employ, in my opinion, superior active crossovers and are more easily bi–amped internally, allowing for wattage and impedance that is finely tuned on a driver–by–driver basis.

When I made the jump from passive to active monitors, I reveled in the convenience and, to my ears, better sonics.

How Wattage and Headroom Work in Studio Monitors

You need a lot of additional wattage to get a noticeable increase in loudness. For instance, when you jump from a 50–watt speaker to a 100–watt speaker, you will likely only see a volume increased of about three dB. In other words, incrementally different wattage ratings between different active monitors won’t make a huge difference in loudness.

Wattage is going to matter more with headroom. You’ll want to buy monitors with high enough wattage that they won’t blow out if and when the volume spikes with a powerful snare hit or a wailing singer. Most of the monitors mentioned below will handle these spikes decently well, as long as you aren’t already pushing them too hard (read: too loud).

Best Monitors for Every Budget

$80 per pair
Mackie CR3
50 watts. 80Hz–20kHz frequency range.

The CR3s are beloved by just about every studio jockey who rates them online. Of course, at just three inches, they’re too small for more ambitious studios but can do a fine job, so long as you guesstimate sub–bass frequencies these speakers can’t reproduce. They’re great for beginners upgrading from stereo speakers and as a great set of B speakers once you upgrade.

Shop Mackie CR3 on Reverb
$400–$500 per pair
56 watts. 37Hz–24kHz frequency response.

JBL has been a giant in the speaker world for decades. The LSRs have been making waves the past few years as flat monitors with broad frequency response for less than the price of an American–made Fender or Gibson. Grab these speakers first, and then you’ll only need to upgrade when you’re ready to buy high–end.

Shop JBL LSR308 on Reverb
$700 per pair
Yamaha HS8
60 watts. 38Hz–30kHz frequency response.

These are based on the legendary Yamaha NS–10s from back in the ’70s. Keep in mind that major studios embraced NS–10s because they were so Plain Jane that making a great mix on them meant it would sound great anywhere. That’s what good monitors are supposed to do. HS8s boast good dynamics and bass response, with phenomenal high–end. And they come in white.

Shop Yamaha HS8 on Reverb
$1,400 per pair
Mackie HR824mk2
150 watts for lows, 100 watts for highs. 37Hz–20kHz frequency response.

I own the earlier version of these 8–inch babies, and they’ve been my go–to set for more than a decade. They had flawless performance at all volume levels and in several studios I’ve owned. The old 824s sound a tad light on the bass, but the mk2 addresses this with a passive radiator that can nail low frequencies with lower distortion and at a higher sound pressure levels.

Shop Mackie HR824mk2 on Reverb
$3,800 a pair
Genelec 8050B
150 watts low, 120 watts high. 38Hz–20kHz frequency response.
Genelec 8050B

Mackie CR3s might get you 80% of the way there, and the new HR824s over 90%. But some folks gotta flirt with the elusive 100 percent mark, and the closer you get, the more you should expect to pay. Genelecs are legendary: my favorite brand for mixing high–energy and left–field rock.

These speakers boast constant sound across all environments, thanks to something called “room response compensation.” They don’t come cheap, but if you want to take your mixing and mastering into the stratosphere, this could be your rocket ship.

Shop Genelec 8050B on Reverb

Some Notes on Monitor Setup

Now that you have your monitors, you need to get them to sound best in the room they’re in. The ins and outs of setting up studio monitors could be another article altogether, but here are the basics:

  • Position speakers in an equilateral triangle to your head. Both the room and your relationship to the speakers in that room will affect how they sound.

  • Use sturdy speaker stands with good monitor isolation products if you can. Neoprene does the job, as do products from Auralex, Primacoustic, and IsoAcoustics. Getting them away from your desk, wall, and mixer will reduce undesirable sound reflections.

  • Learn the footprint and response of your new speakers by testing them with your favorite music.

And remember, try not to mix at too high of a volume. Loud mixes are exciting, but they’re “hyped,” which means everything will turn sloppy when you turn it down. On top of that, your ears will be too shot to hear nuances at lower volumes, and you might blow the speakers when the volume spikes.

Wonderful home studio speakers reveal nuances and shades of sound you’d normally miss. Shoddy monitors can exhaust your ears as you strain to hear sounds they can’t reproduce in the first place. Just as with any instrument, you’ll recognize a step up in quality when you hear it, and it'll make a lasting impact on how you make your mixes.

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