Why would you bother about speakers or monitors in the first place? After all, headphones or your hi-fi setup could do the trick. The short answer here is: you need natural sound. Whereas hi-fi or PC speakers ‘tune’ the sound to improve your audial experience, speakers tend to reproduce balanced mixes that will work fine on most devices and for most audiences.
Monitors vs. speakers
Now, what’s the difference between speakers and monitors? In the same vein, the former may have an impact on the recording (weird response curve, too much bass) whereas the latter reproduce the recorded sound with no extra overtones. Monitors are flat and accurate, with minimal distortion – a great fit for critical listening and studio recording. Long story short, larger pro studios where ‘critical listening’ is a must-have should opt for monitors. Smaller home studios will do great with either plain speakers, or monitors if the budget permits.
To come up with a well-balanced collection of speakers, I split my choices between the best inexpensive, mid-range and high-end categories. The starting budget is $100, and the sky is the limit. In my list, I only included models with a long track record and a good reputation among recording pros and home studio users. Tastes differ as regards sound quality, so my intention was to put together the top picks from several brands for a better picture.
Now let’s get closer to it. First on my list comes the selection of the most affordable speakers/monitors.
Entry-level speakers that garnered most recognition from the community. Popular, highly recommended, and totally to my liking.
1. Alesis Elevate 5
This Alesis model offers some great value for the money. Cheap and cheerful, these speakers will provide great performance in a home recording studio. Alesis Elevate 5 comes in a pair so you get a complete setup at an incredible price.
What’s included in this model?
- 40-Watt power per speaker
- Frequency response rate at 55 Hz – 30 kHz
- Elliptical waveguides
- Bi-amplification (50 woofer and 25 tweeter)
- Wood cabinets (high-density)
In layman’s terms, these specs mean that you can’t get any booming sound out of this pair, but for a reasonable price, you can enjoy a pretty large woofer and overall clarity.
For greater wattage, try the newer 75-Watt (50 low and 25 high) model, Elevate 6.
Killer feature: Auto shut-off
In both versions – 5 and 6 – you can utilize a nifty power-saving tool. Although this may cause certain hiccups in specific scenarios, the power saving really takes a few bucks off your electricity bill. Worth considering if you find yourself in an intensive recording environment.
Here’s a descriptive video overview of the Elevate 5. Watch for the key features, benefits and tech characteristics. The video per se is somewhat pitchy but it really helps you get a better idea of the model.
2. M-Audio AV42
Need equipment for a basic home studio? This budget device is exactly what you need. M-Audio AV42 is a pair of compact desktop monitors, the siblings of the older AV40 model.
Facts and figures:
- 4-inch woofer, 20-Watt-per-channel amplifier
- Class A/B architecture
- RCA inputs for plugging in mixers, gaming systems, and other gadgets
- Universal compatibility with tablets, computers, or mobile devices
What to make of it all? Clear sound in the near field. Decent loudness that won’t be window-shattering, yet a good fit for a small studio. Flexibility and ease of use.
Killer feature: Speaker cones.
I mean, obviously, that’s not a top-notch tech parameter, but it’s got a great look and feel. In the AV42, the cones are placed safely behind a grill, so the device doesn’t get hot to the touch like its predecessors or other models.
The quick review below touches upon volume control, master vs. slave units, multiple input/output options, and advantages over the older M-Audio speakers.
3. Audioengine A2+
An obvious recommendation when it comes to cost-efficient studio speakers, Audioengine products have been on the radar for quite a while. The A2 towers over the previous two models on my list with its greater wattage and frequency response, yet remains in the affordable range.
In a nutshell:
- 150 Watts per speaker, frequency response from 50 to 22 kHz
- Balanced sound along with elegant design
- Smart connectivity, including USB and subwoofer output
- An embedded USB DAC streams Hi-Fi sound right from the PC
- Fits any application: desktop or room-wide
- Stylish wood cabinets
- Cabling included
Behind the figures and features, one finds clear lows and highs (in spite of the 3/4″ tweeter), a comfortable bookshelf style, smooth compatibility and easy controls.
Killer feature: Small footprint – great outcome.
Audioengine offers one of the best ‘power-to-weight’ ratios on the market. Speakers this size are indeed capable of filling a whole big room with solid and refined sound.
Check out this video overview for more details. The reviewer suggests this model requires a standalone subwoofer to cater to the lower frequencies. Get more details and judge for yourself.
4. JBL LSR308
Unobtrusive and well-performing, JBL’s LSR308 builds up an awesome soundstage. The model highlights subtle details that you could’ve missed in a different audial experience. This duo will work just fine without a subwoofer. You’ll be surprised to find impressive lows and loudness that one could hardly expect within this reasonable price range.
How does LSR308 stand out from the crowd?
- Improved high frequency detail
- Adjustable to room acoustics, neutral sound across large work spaces and studios
- Class D Amplifiers for abundant output power
Jargon aside, this model delivers advanced depth and ambience in recordings, even in a dense mix. Plus, you don’t have to stand in front of the speakers to make smooth adjustments to the mix.
Killer feature: Incredible imaging
Detail is key. The expansive soundstage and wide stereo panorama offered by JBL definitely have an edge over the competition.
In this review, you can find a test and feature comparison of the LSR305 and 308. Enjoy the video and decide which one better addresses your objectives:
That’s it in the budget department. If you’re looking for a cheaper way to check your recordings, feel free to consult my review of home studio headphones.
This is the golden middle where you can find superb studio monitors for a close-to-entry-level price. These few picks raise the bar for mid-range sound quality. Browse through the section for improved frequency response and greater wattage.
5. KRK Rokit 5 G3
Bordering on the budget category, the Rokit 5 really rocks! When you see those bright yellow dots, you know that’s the stuff you need. A highly recommended choice in the mid-range, these speakers beat many a competitor, and for a reason.
So what comes in the bundle?
- A pair of KRK RP5G3-NA Rokit 5 Generation 3 Powered Studio Monitors
- Bi-amped, class A/B amplifier
- Outstanding waveguide
- Extended response up to 35kHz
- 1 Soft-dome tweeter
- High-frequency tweaking controls
Translated into common language, this stands for low distortion, perfect clarity, and large headroom. This pair also provides superior imaging, and the ability to make high-frequency tweaks and tunes on the fly.
Killer feature: Waveguide
Rokit delivers detailed imaging in the listening position. The front bass port reduces boundary coupling and allows for flexible location, and the surface keeps off distortions. As bright and clear as it gets in this category.
The video review below questions whether KRK is the best you can get for this price, and, well… answers in the affirmative. This clip also includes feedback from a professional audio producer.
6. Yamaha HS7
Industry standard performance for a moderate price? That’s Yamaha. HS7 delivers loud, crisp, solid sound, and throws in a few nice perks for audiophiles.
The tech parameters include:
- 1″ dome tweeter and 6.5″ cone woofer
- Frequency response at 43Hz – 30kHz
- 95W total (60W LF and 35W HF bi-amp)
- High trim response controls
- Great connectivity with XLR and TRS phone jack inputs
That’s definitely an upgrade compared to the KRK Rokit 5 – and KRK is really good. Yamaha is more punchy and offers the utmost in the mid and high range. To provide more accurate sound in the mids, HS7 kind of reduces its bass capabilities. For a boomy bass, feel free to add a standalone subwoofer.
Killer feature: The right balance
The thing with HS7 is that it sounds good. It doesn’t get pushy in the low mid, and there’s no high end shelf. A great fit for audio/video production and postproduction.
In the video piece below, the reviewer shares his thoughts of the model after owning it for a month. Watch this review for a first-hand home studio experience:
7. Focal Alpha 50
Not surprisingly, I’m adding the Focal Alpha 50 on the list. It’s a top pick among studio owners and audio pros, and one of my personal favorites. You won’t get sticker-shocked with Focal, yet its sound quality is on par with many high-end offerings.
Let’s look at the specs:
- Frequency response of 45Hz to 22kHz (+/- 3dB)
- Driver: 5″ Woofer, 1″ Dome Tweeter
- Amp: 35W LF, 20W HF
- Inputs: 1 x XLR, 1 x RCA
- Controls: Sensitivity, LF Shelving, HF Shelving
- Dimensions: 12.3″ x 8.7″ 10.2″
What’s the bottom line? The Focal Alpha 50 is a multi-purpose studio monitor with quality components and a well-conceived design. It’s a perfect fit for a small studio, and performs well with instrumental and electronic music. Like Alesis, this Focal model also has an auto shutdown mode – it goes off after half an hour of inactivity.
Killer feature: Low directivity design
As opposed to the classic sweetspot-focused design, Focal bets on low directivity. In other words, the sound from its 5″ woofer and 1″ dome tweeter circulates better around a room.
Here’s a pretty good model overview from the Focal guys, pointing out the key benefits and applications. Brief and to-the-point:
8. Avantone Audio Active MixCubes
The MixCube is a mini reference monitor focusing on the mid range. It comes with a single 5.25″ woofer and produces sound with no tweeter involved. There are no complicated controls: all you need to do is plug and play, and follow your mix. Avantone makes each model duly shielded so there will be no interfering with your computer’s sound. These speakers are shipped in a 6.5″ cube MDF cabinet, provide a relatively small footprint, and come in classic black and cream colors.
Other features include:
- Frequency response of 90Hz-17kHz
- 60W amplifier
- Inputs: 1 x XLR/TRS Combo
- Sealed enclosure: Sealed
- System Gain and Ground Lift controls
Where does this all bring us? MixCube is a dream for mono mixing in your setup. These home studio monitors enable easier mixing of vocals and instruments within the mid frequencies. Plus, it’s compact and lightweight. What else could you ask for?
Killer feature: Universal sound
MixCubes are based on the good old architecture of bass-deprived, full-range 5 1/4″ speakers that you can find installed in many car and hi-fi systems. If your mix works great on these monitors, it will sound equally awesome pretty much anywhere.
In the video below, Grammy winner Ryan Moys elaborates on why he loves the Avantone Mixcubes. Watch for practical tips and feature descriptions:
The models here can be really pricey. They are utilized by pros who require pristine sound clarity, great performance in the entire spectrum, and outstanding frequency response.
9. Adam Audio A7X
Since Adam was a boy, the A7X has delivered some great audial experiences to pros and amateurs alike. Borderline mid-range, this model sports some real high-end characteristics. With impressive frequency range and bass power, Adam is a standard for near-field monitoring. Check it out; you can’t go wrong!
- Frequency response: 42Hz 50kHz
- Max peak SPL: 106 dB
- A/B Amplifier class
- Output power: 75W
- Input connectors: XLR, RCA
- Width: 8″, height: 13.5″, depth: 11″
In the Adam, there’s a bunch of other bells and whistles like chamfered upper corners around the tweeters, and smart design and nifty architecture to keep off edge diffraction. Smooth mids. It’s a soft option and great value for the money.
Killer feature: Tweeter
Kudos to the Adam manufacturers! Their custom-built tweeter really rocks. The idea of using a folded ribbon instead of a woofer seems brilliant. Adam works magic with high-end frequencies and clarity. Go for it!
In the YouTube review below, the observer praises the Adam controls and universal applications. Check this out for a succinct, yet comprehensive assessment.
10. Focal Twin6 Be
I’ve already covered a Focal above, but this one is a completely different story. The Focal Twin6 Be studio reference monitor is on the super high end. They are not cheap. However, it does make sense to shell out for the sake of impeccable sound.
What’s inside Focal’s bestseller?
- 6.5″ drivers for bass and mids
- Rigid Beryllium tweeter
- “W” composite sandwich cone for optimized frequency response curve
- Input Connector: XLR
In more detail, Focal’s inverted-dome tweeter revales higher efficiency, precision, and energy than its siblings or competitors. The extra third cone also contributes to the overall sound quality. Hearing is believing, so make sure to check it out – or buy it as soon as you got a spare couple grand.
Killer feature: Unique 3-way design
That’s what keeps Twin6 ahead of the game. Whereas most similar designs employ a bigger bass driver and a smaller mid one, the Twin utilizes identical 6.5″ drivers for both.
In the video below, an audio engineering professional reviews the entire Focal Professional lineup and explains why he thinks these models are superior to their competitors.
11. KEF LS50 Mini Monitor
Good things come in small packages. This adage is more than true when referring to this KEF mini monitor. Mind-blowing quality in a bookshelf model. Great look and feel. Accolades from Stereophile, What Hi-Fi and other reputed sources. Totally worth the money.
What is it like?
- Produces a large listening sweet spot
- Its Uni-Q driver array ensures a clean and expansive sound
- Reproduces audio flat and unaltered
- Four classy colors
Behind the tech jargon, one finds agility and dynamic and tonal accuracy. The KEF LS50 always stays precise staging-wise: it reflects everything – which, of course, could include recording flaws, but that’s another story. The KEF also looks fantastic: it’s compact and powerful enough to cover most typical studio needs.
Killer feature: Accuracy
Hold your breath and shoo away the insects – the KEF will reveal anything that happened. Make sure you position it right for the best results, and enjoy the ample rich audio.
This video review speaks of the pros and cons of the model, and includes a few curious tweaks to unlock KEF’s full potential:
Now that my roundup of the best low- and high-budget acoustic systems comes to an end, it’s time to give out the awards. The choice is really tough here, since I’m sort of comparing apples to oranges, but I’d like to pick two models that will fit most common use scenarios. My silver medal goes to the Yamaha HS7 for its smart functional compromise between low, mid and high. The gold goes to Adam for its excellent price-to-performance ratio, superb frequency response and bass that makes you shiver – in a good way.
I hope you enjoyed this short roundup. As always, I anticipate your comments and suggestions.