Buying Monitor Speakers

Earlier in the year I went thorough the process of evaluating, and then buying new monitor speakers.  It was an interesting experience, and I learnt a lot about the differences between various monitors, and choosing monitors based on specific needs.  Hopefully this will be useful for anyone in the same situation.

In retrospect, the thing that surprises me is that I didn’t look at buying better monitors earlier during the period I’ve been writing music full time.  Initially I was using a pair of M-Audio AV40 speakers… I bought these many years ago when I first moved to Tokyo as a kind of stop-gap so I could listen to music with decent quality, and still have something acceptable for monitoring on the rare occasions I had a chance to produce something.  For some reason I went through 4 months of full-time writing and producing without consciously realising that my monitoring solution could have been a lot better.  It’s not that the AV40s were bad, but with only a 4″ speaker, they just weren’t capable of producing the low octaves of human hearing (and feeling) that are so crucial in club music.  I first realized this when I went to Sydney for 4 weeks and worked there with my original studio equipment, including my first proper monitors, a pair of M-Audio BX8s.  These speakers are capable of much lower frequency extension than the AV40s, and I was shocked to hear a lot of low frequency content (of mostly bass line synth and bass drum) which previous I simply hadn’t known was there.  Ofcourse I was happy I’d discovered this, it was also a curse, as I then had to do lengthy remixes of 3 tracks to correct all the low end.

On returning to Tokyo it was clear that I had to find a better monitoring solution… something that could fill the following criteria…

  1. Good, smooth overall frequency balance
  2. Decent low frequency response (so I could actually hear what was going on down there)
  3. Not too big (so they didn’t overwhelm my modest apartment)
  4. Price had to be reasonable (as now a fulltime musician, I’m hardly flush with cash!)

I created a CD with some reference tracks, sine wave sweep tones, and clips of the tracks I’d had to remix in Sydney, and auditioned a bunch of monitors at local music stores.  The monitors that best fitted all the above criteria were…

… although I listened to monitors from many companies (including KRK, Tannoy, JBL, RCF, other Yamahas)… however, none of the above 3 met all the criteria.  The good and bad points of each were as follows…

  • Adam – Definitely had the most balanced response across the frequency range, but unfortunately couldn’t reproduce the really low bass in the test tracks.
  • Mackie – Sound was fairly balanced, and bass extension was better than the Adams, but at the same time it didn’t go quite as far down as I would have liked,  and the sweep tones showed some uneven peaks in the low bass range.
  • Yamaha – Bass extension was the best of the three by a clear margin… you were able to start ‘feeling’ the bass aswell as hearing it (to be expected as they had a much larger LF speaker than the other two).  But physical size was an issue,  and they seemed unnaturally strong around 3-5Khz… i.e. instruments like hi-hats sounded 2-3dB louder than on the other speakers.

Basically there was no clear winner between the three, and although I was leaning towards the Yamahas for the better bass response, I was a bit worried about the overly strong treble, and also whether I could fit them on my studio desk.  But the most interesting thing about the whole exercise was the fundamental differences in tone between the three… the Adams sounded the most flat, but they all had clear and characteristic differences in response at various parts of the frequency range… so much so that I’m sure I would have had no problem identifying each one in a blind test.  This was the first time I’d auditioned a number of different monitors side-by-side, and I guess I was surprised by the degree of differences between variations on a product that is fundamentally supposed to provide a flat and un-coloured representation of sound.  The takeaway from that is… at least in this price segment (~$500), any monitor you buy is going to impart some character on the sound, which you will have to learn, and to some degree compensate for when mixing.  Also I think you need to need to select monitors based on your specific requirements… for example if I was working mainly with less bass-heavy music styles, the flat response and clarity of the Adam F5s would have been a clear winner.

In the end, I didn’t go with any of the three stated options.  I found a pair of M-Audio M3-6 speakers at one of the big electronics chains in Tokyo.  If I understood correctly, they were being discontinued in Japan, and hence were selling for about half the RRP.  The store was not the best environment to audition them, but they certainly ticked the box on the ‘low frequency response’ criteria (although like the Yamahas, lost marks on size).  At the end of the day, given…

  1. There was no clear winner within the three I’d already tested.
  2. It seemed I would have to ‘learn’ any monitor within the price range to some degree.
  3. They were from the same manufacturer as the BX8s, which I’d worked with happily for many years in Sydney previously (in retrospect it was potentially a bit risky assuming I’d get consistency between a manufacturer’s products 15+ years apart).
  4. They were good value

… they seemed like a good choice on balance, so that was what I went with.  They’re not perfect… self noise is quite noticeable (also mentioned in several online reviews), and they seem slightly muted in the high end (which I have to accommodate and compensate for when mixing)… but generally I’m fairly happy.

As an interesting follow up, buying the new monitors, gave me a chance to compare my old AV40s side-by-side with something else for the first time.  I noticed from this, that they are really strong in the 2-4Khz region… makes me wonder if it would have resulted in dull-sounding mixes if I’d continued with only them (they are still useful though as a second/sanity check for final mixes… provided you mentally compensate for the bright response).

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