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Sunday, March 21, 2010

3 Tips For Choosing A Set Of Monitor Speakers

It’s surprising that so many monitors are chosen on the words of a review or word of mouth, since they’re such a personal item. Here are some things to think about before you purchase a monitor.

1) Don’t choose a monitor because someone else is using them. Monitors are a lot like guitars. Just because Jimmy Page plays a Les Paul doesn’t mean that it’s right for you. It might be too heavy for your frame, the neck might be too wide, and the sound might not be a good match for the type of music you’re playing. Same with a monitor. Just because your favorite mixer uses a set of Genelec 1032A’s, it doesn’t mean that they’ll be right for you too. You may hear differently, your hearing experience is different, the match with your room might not work, the match with the type of music you work on might not be ideal, and if they’re unpowered, you may not have the same amp to drive them with so they’ll sound different as a result.

2) Listen to the monitors before you buy them. Before the pros purchase a monitor, they take their time and listen to them under a wide range of conditions, so why shouldn’t you? OK, you might not have the luxury of living near a big media center with lots of pro audio dealers, and even if you do, you may not have a relationship with one that allows you a personal demo in your own environment, but that shouldn’t stop you from listening. This is a serious purchase so don’t take it lightly. Take the trip to your local pro audio or music store and prepare to spend some time listening. Listen to everything and spend as much time with each model as you can. What should you listen for? Here’s how to gauge a monitor:
  • Listen for Even Frequency Balance - While listening to a piece of music that you know well, check to see if any frequencies are exaggerated or attenuated. This is especially important in the mid-range cross-over area (usually about 1.5 to 2.5kHz). Listen especially to cymbals on the high end, vocals and guitars for the midrange, and bass and kick drum on the low end.
  • Make Sure the Frequency Balance Stays The Same At Any Level - The less the frequency response changes as the level does (especially when playing softly), the better. In other words, the speaker should have roughly the same frequency balance when the level is quiet as when it’s loud.
  • Make Sure You Have Enough Output Level Without Distortion - Be sure that there’s enough clean level for your needs. Many powered monitors have built-in limiters that stop the speaker or amplifier from distorting, but also may keep the system from getting as loud as you find necessary.
Above all, don’t buy a set of speakers without listening to them. It’s usually very difficult for them to live up to your expectations if you’ve not heard them first. In fact, it’s not a good idea to buy anything unless you’re really in love with them. You’ll have to listen to these monitors for a lot of hours so you might as well like what you hear.

3) Listen with source material that you know very well. The only way to judge a monitor is with material that you’re very familiar with and have heard in a lot of different environments. This will give you the necessary reference point that you need to adequately judge what you’re listening to. I like to use some things that I’ve recorded myself that I know inside and out, and at least one favorite CD that I consider to be well recorded. Remember - no MP3’s here. Use only CD’s or a playback system with an even higher quality 24 bit source like a personal digital recorder. That should give you some idea of the frequency response of the system.


Clear Ambassador said...

This is great Bobby! Clear summary of a lot of common sense that often gets overlooked.

Pol vanRhee said...

I always say, listen in conditions you're going to use them in, too. If you're going to use them in a big hall don't count on them sounding the same as in a studio setting. A nice option is to rent some and use in the exact space.

Jeremy Blasongame said...

Ideally you should take a listen to the monitors you're looking to buy in your mix room. Room acoustics are so fickle, what sounds like awesome speakers in the pro audio dealer's listening room might sound awful in your room (and vice versa). But many dealers don't allow their demo units to leave the facility, so if you like your buddy's [insert monitor model number here] borrow them, see if they sound good in your room.

Kudos on the source material as well. I have a "Test Burn CD" I always carry around. And I find putting multiple genre's give me a wider perspective of what the monitor is doing. I have classical, rock, blues, and electronic music on the CD, and all tell me different things about the monitor: is it clean, is it punchy? Does it color the sound (in an acceptable manner that fits my mixing style)?


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