So, you’ve started to invest in your podcasting setup. You’ve got your computer, audio editing software of choice, a microphone, and your content but there’s still one thing missing that you see in almost every single home or professional studio…monitor speakers.
There’s a reason why these pieces of equipment can be considered a necessity for anyone working with audio and this is something we will explore in today’s article. Hopefully, by the end, you will know whether they are something you can get by without, or whether they could be the missing piece preventing you from unlocking the highest quality in podcast sound.
Table of Contents
What are Studio Monitors and why are they Important?
I like to think of studio monitors as ‘critical listening devices’. By this I mean they allow you to analyze the outputted audio at its truest audible representation. This is down to the fact that the very purpose of studio monitors is to have a ‘flat’ frequency response with no added audio coloration being imposed onto the sound.
Therefore, you can make accurate changes to your podcast’s mix, without your decision being influenced by the misrepresented frequency response of certain listening devices or the psychoacoustic effects of headphone mixing (more on this later). They also allow for a more precise representation of your mix across the stereo field. In other words, the sounds heard on the left, right, center, and anywhere in between.
Mixing on headphones alone or a set of speakers that are not dedicated to audio mixing has the potential to create dramatic negative effects within your podcast’s final audio due to the aforementioned trickery that can be played on your ears. Hence, we can already see why a set of monitor speakers could be a vital addition to your setup.
How are Studio Monitors Different from Speakers?
As mentioned previously certain speakers are not suited for the job of audio mixing or critical listening. Think of it this way. If you were in a car race would you choose the vehicle that is designed for maximum comfort for you and all of your passengers, or would you choose the precision-engineered Ferrari that is built to help benefit a single driver win the race at hand?
Various speaker types operate on similar principles. Standard home stereo and hi-fi speakers are built to sound good almost everywhere in your room. This is because the listener is likely to move around the room more and maybe positioned somewhere not considered an ‘ideal listening position’. As a result, these speakers often overcompensate the low and high-end frequencies to enhance the average listener’s impression of the music, hence making it sound larger than life.
Conversely, studio monitors are built for the audio professional who wants a different listening experience to your average consumer. Here, speakers that offer a truly flat, uncolored frequency representation of the audio are what is desired. This reveals to the listener all the minor imperfections and small details that may be concealed by speakers that are instead designed to enhance the listening experience.
Therefore, those vital mix changes that can, for example, separate a close, intimate podcast vocal from one that is muddy and unintelligible can be made with confidence and accuracy, knowing that what you are hearing is truly how the specific element sounds.
Studio Monitors vs Headphones for Podcasting: Pros and Cons
Here begins the main portion of our debate in today’s discussion: Do you need monitors at all? Can you achieve good headphone mixes suitable for final distribution? What are the benefits and negatives of each? This section hopes to enlighten you on some of these questions and provide a wider insight on the topic.
Studio Monitors – Pros
- More Natural Mixing Experience – The premise of monitor speakers is that they not only allow a natural listening experience due to a characteristically ‘flat’ frequency response but also because you are hearing the outputted sound through pass through air molecules and combine with the particular ambiance/tone of your room. Hence, you get an idea of how your audio will sound in a real-world environment.
- Cross-feed Effect – Following on from the last point, this is slightly more specific but also reflects a more natural listening experience. ‘Cross-feed’ describes the blending of the left and right monitor signals picked up by both your ears. This assists in mixing decisions concerning placement of sources across the stereo field, level of effects (reverb, delay, etc.), and volume balancing.
- Less Fatiguing on the Ears – Comparatively lower sound pressure levels than headphones meaning you can listen and mix for longer without your brain starting to reject the constant noise it’s hearing. Even more importantly it protects your hearing which, for an audio professional, is their most vital tool.
- More Accurate Low End – Due to having large, dedicated bass ‘woofers’, monitor speakers can accurately replicate more of the low end, in particular those important sub-bass frequencies.
Studio Monitors – Cons
- Not Always Portable – The size and weight of certain monitor speakers makes them awkward to move about if you are going to be mixing in different rooms or if you are often mixing on the go wherever you find yourself with some free time.
- Not all Monitors are Identical –If your ear becomes attuned to mixing audio on one particular type of monitor, there is potential that if you try mixing on a different pair, you could make incorrect adjustments. This is because over time your brain and ears learn, and become used to the frequency response of your monitors and their acoustic relationship to the room you normally mix in. Therefore, you must be aware of whether a different monitor type responds to particular frequency bands differently.
- Expensive – Compared to headphones, a good pair of monitors can be significantly more expensive. Therefore, whether you can add these to your setup could be largely budget dependent.
- LOUD! – If situated in an environment where blasting out your audio at a higher level could cause things like noise complaints from neighbors or housemates then monitors may not be ideal. Nominal listening levels for mixing audio are about 85dB SPL (not exactly quiet) so assess whether this loudness may cause problems. Check out this article by Mastering the Mix for more detail on how and why we should listen at this level.
- Require Acoustic Treatment – To get the best out of your monitors you will need some form of acoustic treatment within your room to prevent reflected sound waves from creating phase issues and other acoustic phenomena at and around your listening position (explained more later on). This is again, a costly and time-consuming process.
Headphones – Pros
- Portable – Compared to monitors, headphones can be taken everywhere easily meaning you can mix in virtually any environment. No acoustic treatment is required either since you are hearing the sound directly without reflections.
- Cheap and Quiet! – Unlike monitors, high quality, ‘flat response’ headphones are cheaper than their studio monitor counterparts and direct noise straight into your head rather than out for others to hear. Therefore, mixing on headphones can be easier on your wallet, and less intrusive for others.
- Increased Detail – Headphones are arguably more useful than monitors for analyzing your audio to find and remove audible clicks, pops, and other audio artifacts or performance errors. As the sound is at closer proximity and heard directly in your head it is much easier to hear and then remedy these issues.
- Enhanced Stereo – As the sound is directed straight to your ears, your brain perceives the sound stage within your head. Therefore, it can be very useful to use headphones when wanting to assess specifically how the panning of various elements is affecting your mix.
Headphones – Cons
- No Cross-feed – As described earlier, cross-feed can play an integral part in the natural listening experience and audio mixing process. Without it, mix imbalances can become something that can regularly let down your podcast.
- Overemphasized Low End – With sound being so close to your ears, a common result is that the low frequencies, in particular, reflect off the inner walls of the headphone and back into your ear, muddying the low end by combining with the original bass. This is similar to the idea of ‘proximity effect’.
- Ear Fatigue – SPL levels are much higher on headphones overall than monitors due to their close proximity to your ears. This can cause lasting damage to your ears when listening for a lengthy period of time.
What Size Studio Monitors Do I Need?
Studio monitor size generally relates to two different aspects; their recommended listening ‘field’ and their driver size.
The listening field for monitors is most commonly either ‘near field’ or ‘far field’ with some being specified as ‘mid field’ monitors. As the description suggests, near field monitors are suited for closer proximity listening due to their smaller driver size and lower maximum output levels. This design eliminates a lot of the negative effects that poor room acoustics can have on your critical listening process.
Driver size is based on the size of the woofer driver of your monitor (the larger speaker cone dedicated to reproducing bass frequencies). The larger the diameter of this cone, the louder, and more accurately your speakers will be able to reproduce lower bass and sub-bass frequencies.
The best way to decipher what size monitor you may need requires you to first examine the room that you will be doing the majority of your critical listening in as different sized rooms will be more suited to particular monitor types and sizes.
If your room is on the smaller side (e.g. a bedroom, spare room, study, lounge) then the only real option is a pair of near field monitors as far field monitors would interact way too much with your room causing overemphasized room resonances amongst other things making it very difficult to mix accurately.
Woofer size is largely up to the consumer, however, if your room is very boxy or overly small then it would be advisable to choose, for example, monitors with a 5-inch woofer rather than a 10-inch version as too much bass in a small room can make things like standing waves very apparent along with horrible room resonances.
Conversely, if you have the luxury of mixing in a much larger room where you can position yourself around 10 feet back from your speakers, then a pair of far field monitors could be very useful to your setup to see how the room interacts with your mix, hence, more akin to a real-world listening experience.
For most of our readers editing their home podcasts, I would highly recommend steering more towards near field monitors as they are much more likely to suit your room size, be kinder on your wallet, be more suited to the audio editing tasks associated with podcasting and still allow for a clear and accurate listening experience when compared with far fields.
What Studio Monitors Should I Get?
If we are acting on our previous conclusion of investing in a pair of near field monitors, then countless brands and models would be perfect for the job of editing podcast audio! I will run through a few that stand out as excellent choices at varying price points.
Limited Budget – PreSonus Eris E4.5
PreSonus did incredibly well with this product to create an affordable entry-level monitor speaker suitable for any audio editing tasks you might be carrying out. They have also made it incredibly versatile with the ability to connect both 1/4” jack and RCA inputs along with a dedicated front headphone output in case you need to listen in more detail or prevent noise from annoying your housemates!
A 70 Hz – 20 kHz response and potential to alter the acoustic tuning (bass and treble) through back panel controls also compounds the effectiveness of these monitors. Hence, for such a modest price these are an excellent starter for any podcaster.
Mid-Range Budget – KRK Rokit RP5 G4
The unmistakable yellow cone of the Rokit brand of monitors is one that even the newest of budding podcasters will likely be familiar with, and for a good reason. The RP5 model makes for an excellent choice for those with a mid-range budget who want a bit more bang for their buck.
A 43Hz – 40KHz frequency response offers an excellent range for such a small monitor, enhanced further via the front-firing bass ports which tighten up your low end dramatically making for clear, unmuddied listening around this area. KRK also integrates its own app into the speaker system allowing you to fine-tune the EQ response of the monitors and ensure that your system is perfectly set up to work with your listening environment.
Mid-Range Budget – Yamaha HS5
The HS range from Yamaha is relatively special since these monitors aim to replicate the revealing nature of the infamous NS10 that started life as a home hi-fi speaker but ended up being a favorite of many audio engineers around the world. Of course, they are not identical in their response by any means, but they still do an excellent job of highlighting mix inconsistencies in a similar manner.
A 54Hz – 30kHz frequency response offers a great range and like the previous two, acoustic controls can be found on the rear for further response customization based on your room. It also accepts both balanced XLR and TRS jack inputs which further enhances the flexibility of the product.
Bigger Budget – Adam Audio T8V
If you really want to start splashing the cash, then Adam Audio offers a brilliant way to do so. The T8V along with the rest of the ‘T’ series range of monitors all incorporate Adam’s waveguide technology within the tweeter of the monitor which greatly expands the width of your listening ‘sweet spot’. Hence you are not so restricted to lock your head in one position.
The 8” woofers also mean the final response stands at 33 Hz – 25 kHz; more than enough bass for mixing podcast audio. Basic acoustic controls, rear-firing bass port, and RCA/XLR inputs also add to the value of this excellent monitor.
At the end of the day, the choice is yours on what monitor works best for your budget, room size, and listening environment however the most important thing I would advise is to research before purchasing and consider what the effects the monitor may have on your listening experience. After all, bigger might not always be better!
Do I Need a Subwoofer with Studio Monitors?
My general answer to this question for 90% of you reading this is going to be a big NO. Why? Simply because most amateur and even some mid-level audio engineers and creatives don’t have a room big enough to warrant the incorporation of a subwoofer into your system.
Due to the wavelengths of bass frequencies being so much longer than higher frequencies your room will not allow you as a listener to perceive these sub frequencies accurately and in the right context. Rather, subwoofers can have dramatic negative effects. Check out this excellent article to find out more.
How to Hook up Studio Monitors to your Computer
The vast majority of monitor speakers will possess one of at least 3 connection types that, when connected to an audio interface, will allow you to start outputting the sound from your laptop: balanced TRS Jack, balanced XLR, or unbalanced RCA.
I would highly recommend investing in an audio interface if you don’t already have one in your podcast setup rather than trying to attempt connecting the headphone output of your laptop to your monitors. This is because the analog to digital converters are far superior and you may find that digital distortion or latency becomes a problem otherwise. Check out this article if you are unsure of the role an audio interface plays.
Firstly, establish what cable connection both your interface and monitors accept. For me, this required an XLR to TRS jack hybrid cable to link my Adam T7V’s to my Focusrite 18i8. Other monitors and interfaces may differ however so purchase relevant cables for your system.
From here I simply connected the 18i8 to my laptop via USB and made sure that the 18i8 was selected as the output device within my system preferences. Bear in mind that some interfaces may require additional drivers to be installed in order to operate as expected.
Even after you have purchased and correctly set up your chosen pair of monitors there is still one thing that can let down your listening experience which even the most expensive speakers in the world cannot solve. Poor acoustic treatment of your room.
If the sound emitted from your monitors is not controlled in some way then it will keep reflecting off the hard surfaces in your room until it finally diffuses. This can cause horrible phase differences and other acoustic phenomena at and around your listening position making it very difficult to mix accurately.
Our article Should You use Diffusion or Absorption at First Reflection Points provides a guide for how you can begin to tame these reflections in order to improve your mixing environment.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why are studio monitors so expensive?
Compared to standard speakers, studio monitors are designed specifically for mixing audio. Therefore, a lot of the design/manufacturing process is incredibly complex regarding delivering a product that is excellent acoustically and technically for the task at hand. This cost is compounded through the use of top-quality materials and often incorporates company patented technology that can make certain brands and models even more expensive.
Can I use studio monitors to listen to music?
Of course you can! I do it all the time. They are after all still speakers that play music the same as any. The only difference is that compared to a home stereo speaker setup, the coverage will not be as uniform throughout your whole room. If this is not an issue for you then listen away!
Do you need 2 studio monitors?
For audio editing and mixing tasks 100% yes. Almost all audio whether that is for music, podcasts, TV, or anything else is delivered, mixed, and intended for the listener to hear it in a stereo format will require two monitors for mixing. Without two monitors you restrict yourself to mixing in mono and if trying to place something on either side of the stereo field, you will be doing it blindly without any idea of the impact it is having on your mix. If you only had one studio monitor, it would arguably be better to mix with headphones instead.