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Product Spotlight - Studio Monitors

You hear them referred to by a variety of different names: reference monitors, monitor speakers, studio monitors, near-fields; and with lots of different terms like uncolored, linear, neutral, and flat applied to them. But what does all of that mean? Letís take a look at just what studio monitors are, what the terms mean, and then weíll help you select which monitors are right for you.



WHAT ARE STUDIO MONITORS?

Studio monitors are loudspeakers specifically designed for audio and video production applications such as recording studios, film and television production studios, and radio studios. When the term monitor is used, it means that the speaker is designed to produce relatively flat (linear) phase and frequency responses.

This means that in a good studio monitor, there will be no emphasis or de-emphasis (boosting or cutting) of particular frequencies so that the loudspeaker gives the listener an accurate reproduction of the tonal qualities of the source audio. Synonyms for this are uncolored and transparent.

Most commonly, a monitor speaker refers to a near-field speaker, which is small enough to sit on a stand or a mixing consoleís meter bridge, near the listener so that most of the sound the listener hears is coming directly from the speaker, rather than reflecting off of walls and ceilings.

Finally, a studio monitor is designed to be more rugged than a hi-fi speaker, to handle peaks, overloads, and feedback mistakes that can happen with unprocessed audio. Think about the dynamic range that a drummer can have from the lightest whisper, all the way to bleeding-eardrums loud! Consumer speakers are made to play back finished tracks that are mixed and mastered to fall within a certain dynamic range. Raw audio can destroy consumer speakers, while studio monitors are designed for this kind of abuse.


WHY FLAT?


Itís important to note again than the primary job of a studio monitor is to give you an ACCURATE representation of the sound it is playing back Ė NOT to sound pleasing, musical, rich, brilliant, full, robust, or any other way. In fact, a really good studio monitor should not have any of its own sound Ė it should be transparent so you hear the source material and not the coloration of the speaker playing it back!

Accurate playback is important because you, as the engineer, producer, or artist, need to hear exactly what has been recorded, warts and all. You will be less likely to miss any undesirable tonal qualities of the recording or end up with mixes that have too much or too little bass when played over other speaker systems. By tracking, mixing, and mastering on studio monitors, your mixes will translate well to home theatre systems, headphones, computer speakers and car stereo equally well.


ACTIVE AND PASSIVE


Studio monitors usually are referred to as active or passive, meaning that they either have an integrated amplifier built inside or they donít. With passive monitors, you need an amplifier to power the system, where with active monitors, you can plug the input signal directly into the monitor since the amplifier is inside the cabinet.

Passive monitors require the right wattage and impedance for the speaker, placement to promote cooling, proper cabling, and the knowledge that each amplifier has its own sound. With active monitors, the manufacturer takes care of all of the
ohms, watts, damping, overload protection, crossovers, and other issues so you can simply plug it into your mixer or computer audio interface.


TWO-WAY AND BI-AMPLIFICATION

When a monitor is referred to as a two-way speaker, it refers to the speaker having separate drivers or speaker elements for high and low-pitched sound. A three-way monitor has three drivers for high, mid, and low-range sounds. Components called crossovers divide the sound and send it to the appropriate driver. By using multiple drivers, the speaker can play more accurately, with lower distortion and less strain on the amplification system.

Many two-way active monitors are bi-amplified (or tri-amplified in the case of three-way monitors), which means that each driver has its own amplifier. The advantage of this configuration is that each amplifier-driver system can focus on doing what it is optimized for Ė the high-frequency tweeter and its amplifier donít have to worry about trying to play bass drum notes so it can more efficiently and more powerfully play hi-hats.


WHAT SIZE?

The size of a speakerís woofer and cabinet are the primary factors in how low the speaker will play. Humans can theoretically hear from 20 to 20,000 Hz, so an ideal monitoring system plays all the way through that range. The bigger the speaker, the lower it will play, generally speaking. In addition to size, manufacturers can extend bass response using cabinet design, such as porting. Ports, or holes in the cabinet, can both extend how low a speaker will play as enable it to play louder than an unported cabinet.


INPUTS AND INTERFACES

How you connect your equipment to your speakers can determine how they perform. If you have to use adapters or special cables, you can degrade the way your monitors perform. For this reason, some manufacturers build monitors with digital (AES EBU or S/PDIF) inputs or USB digital audio interfaces. Using these connections, you can directly connect your source material, such as your computer, to the monitors and the digital-to-analog conversion takes place in the speaker.

While this might sound complicated, itís actually quite simple and effective. Analog signal running through cables can experience signal loss, and every cable-connection point in the system is an opportunity for noise to be introduced and for a level mismatch.


That wraps up our coverage of the basics of studio monitoring. Now letís look at some specific models from our line.

Our large M1 Active 620 monitors are two-way, bi-amplified, active studio monitors with a six-inch woofer and one-inch tweeter. Theyíre perfect for medium to large-sized home studio because they play down to 49Hz and loud.

At one inch smaller, are nearly identical to their 620 siblings, but with a smaller, five-inch woofer and cabinet, they donít play quite as low Ė to 56 Hz, and not quite as loud.

M1 Active 520 If you take the concept of the M1Active 520 and add a USB digital audio interface, you arrive at M1Active 520 USB monitors, which give you all of the benefits of the two-way, bi-amplified system, but with both analog and USB-digital options. And because USB is bidirectional Ė you can send and receive audio over the same connection Ė you can use the analog inputs as recording inputs and record your guitar, keyboard, mixer, or drum machine into your computer without an additional interface!

For those who like the idea of the M1Active 520 USB monitors but donít have the space, our M1Active 320 USB speakers are the ticket. They are two-way, active, three-inch monitors with a USB audio interface inside. They play down to 80 Hz and are great as portable control monitors or work well for full-range monitoring with a subwoofer.

We hope this feature has given you some insight into the world of monitoring. There are a lot of terms used and we feel that an educated musician, engineer, or producer is in the best position to make a smart decision.