If you’re thinking about buying studio monitors, make sure to watch this video until the end – because I’m going to help you decide if it’s worth the investment or if you’re better off just sticking with headphones.
What Is The Ideal Monitoring Setup For A Studio?
First, let’s make sure we agree on what the ideal monitoring setup is for recording and mixing.
The first thing you want in your monitoring setup is a reliable frequency response, meaning what goes in is what comes out. If a pair of speakers or headphones has a boost or cut in one frequency range compared to another, then it will change the frequency balance for the person listening.
For recording, mixing, and critical listening you will generally want a listening setup that is relatively flat, meaning the speakers or headphones are mostly transparent and have very little impact on the frequency balance of the signal.
It’s possible that being “familiar” with your listening setup is even more important than your setup’s frequency response.
Once you have an understanding of how different styles of music sound on your listening setup, you’ll be able to more easily set targets for how you want your mixes to sound “on your system”. Growing familiar with a listening system, you’ll also learn to recognize and overcome any peaks or dips in it’s frequency response.
Most importantly, you’ll want your listening system to provide you with the listening experience you need to consistently create mixes that translate well to other systems.
In my opinion, you should aim to create mixes that will sound good on any system – including hi-fi setups, smartphone speakers, and everything in-between. As you’ll see in a moment, both headphones and speakers can play a role in making your mixes translate.
Studio Monitors vs Headphones
There are a few things to consider when comparing headphones and studio monitors.
First, headphones are much more portable compared to studio monitors. And while this has obvious logistical implications, it also plays a big role in developing familiarity. You’re likely to more frequently listen to music on your headphones because you can take them anywhere you go.
Even if you have a pair of studio monitors, it’s still useful to have a pair of headphones so that you have a familiar reference no matter where you are.
Details & Quiet Noises
Another benefit of having a pair of headphones is that you can pick up on small clicks and noises that are more difficult to hear on studio monitors. For example, I’ll almost always “edit” audio using headphones because the proximity and detail allows me to hear breaths and other noises that I might miss when listening on studio monitors.
The inverse is also true though – some things that you hear in headphones won’t necessarily translate to speakers, so it’s of course best to have both headphones and studio monitors.
While the close-up, detailed sound of headphones can be good in some situations, I personally find it to be overwhelming after awhile and find the experience of listening on my studio monitors to be much more enjoyable.
I can listen on my speakers longer without experiencing ear fatigue, while I need to take breaks from my headphones every so often.
Ambience & Haptics
When you listen through studio monitors or other speakers, you hear more than just what’s coming out of the speaker. You also hear the reverb of the space when you mix with studio monitors which adds to the reverb built into the mix, as opposed to headphones which provide a more isolated experience.
Even if the frequency range of a pair of headphones and studio monitors is the same, you’re limited to experiencing that frequency range with only your ears when using headphones. With studio monitors, you will experience the sound with your ears and your body through haptics, which gives you an improved understanding of the punch and low-end in your mix.
Stereo Image & Crossfeed
Studio monitors also experience a phenomenon called crossfeed, where the sound from both speakers is heard in both the listener’s ears. In headphones, the left speaker is only heard by the left ear and the right speaker is only heard by the right ear.
Therefore, the stereo image will often sound much wider in headphones and sounds panned to the center will seem to originate from inside the listener’s head rather than in front of the listener as they might experience with speakers. The crossfeed that occurs with speakers often makes for a more realistic stereo image compared to headphones.
It’s important to understand that the sound quality of your studio monitors will be dependent on your listening space, while headphones aren’t effected by the acoustics of your room.
Your room becomes a part of your listening system when you use studio monitors. Even if your studio monitors sound perfect, the acoustic environment can still have radical impacts on what the listener ultimately hears.
Studio monitors vibrate in order to make sound. That vibration can be transferred to other surfaces that come into contact with the monitors. If your monitors are placed directly on a surface that can vibrate and resonate, like a desk for example, the surface will vibrate and reinforce certain resonant frequencies more than others.
Isolation pads or other isolation solutions exist that will separate your monitors from the desk or stand, reducing the transfer of energy.
As opposed to headphones, the sound from studio monitors can reflect off the walls and surfaces in the room and bounce back toward the listener. This presents the possibility of phase cancellation and comb filtering, which can greatly impact the frequency balance.
Based on the difference in the time it takes for direct sound to travel to the listener compared to the indiret sound, various frequencies will be boosted and reduced at the listening position.
That’s why it’s a good idea to place acoustic absorbtion panels in the spots along the walls and ceiling where sound takes its shortest indirect pathway from the speakers to the listener. This will at least reduce the strength of the indirect sound, resulting in less-severe cancellations.
While reflections are simple to treat, resonations of your room are more difficult to address especially in small rooms. Each dimension of your room will resonate at a specific frequency, causing big boosts and cancellations at those frequencies throughout the space.
Its possible to reduce the impacts of these resonant frequencies with acoustic treatment, but it can be more expensive and difficult than just simple absorbtion panels. You can, however, use the tricks I lay out in this post to get the most out of your studio monitors even in a small room.