Best Studio Monitors

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Studio Monitor Reviews
(Including 1 or 2 Reference Speakers)

Many people who are now getting into vintage vinyl audio are not interested in putting together an expensive and space-eating component system. Modern speaker technology also means that you no longer have to have huge speaker cabinets for room-filling sound. It’s amazing what a pair of good desktop speakers can achieve in terms of frequency, volume, and clarity.

One of the easiest ways to get a pretty decent turntable setup is to connect the line output on your phono preamp directly to a set of active speakers.

What’s an active speaker? Well, simply put, it is a speaker that has an amplifier built into the speaker cabinet itself. This makes for a much more compact system, with fewer wires and fewer headaches. The power goes directly to the speaker itself. There may be one amp in the main speaker that drives both, or each speaker cabinet may have it’s own amplifier.

Of course there are some drawbacks as well. There’s less room for the speakers in the cabinet and they are heavier, but modern amps are much smaller and less power hungry than in the past, so this is not much of a negative.

Here I have taken examples from the most popular active speakers sold online today. Of course these are not vinyl specific in general, but they represent the products that people are buying in the highest numbers and are most likely what you’ll come across for your potential shopping list.

Some of these speakers are “monitors”, which are usually tuned to have a “flat” frequency response and introduce as little coloration into the audio as possible. The idea is that you’ll hear exactly was recorded or as close to it as possible. Reference speakers, on the other hand, sound like regular consumer audio, but as a sort of best case; giving you a wide frequency response and lots of detail in the audio. Neither type of speaker is “right” but each person may consider the different approaches to sound fidelity most to their liking.

So I have highlighted which I think are the best products in different ways, listing my top choices first. The rest of the products are not listed in any particular order.

Top Pick:
KRK RP5G3-NA Rokit 5

The reputation of the Rokit 5 speakers precede them. I’ve been hearing about these speakers long before I ever saw a picture or a spec sheet for them.

The bold yellow speaker cones are actually nicer than I would have thought. The whole design does a good job of looking high-end while still being funky. These speakers also look more expensive than something like the M-AUDIo Avs. That’s good, because the asking price is tripled in comparison.

KRK has gone the route of bi-amping. This means that two separate amplifiers handle bass and mid-to-treble duty. That’s generally a better method, if a bit more expensive. The waveguides are custom to KRK, which says this gives its speakers a superior audio image. The frequency range is also extended all the way up to 35Khz, which is fantastic for any dogs or cats planning to buy a set. For humans, who generally top out at 22Khz at best when it comes to hearing, that feature may be less than useful.

Based on the general impressions people have given of these speakers, it seems you’d have to pry them from the cold dead fingers of their owners. One caveat that some people have mentioned is that these speakers go to sleep after five minutes without a signal, but after a second or two they come online again. That’s not an issue for music, but people who do editing might find it irritating. For getting the best out of vintage audio from vinyls, I’m inclined to say that this is one of the best choices. In fact, it’s my go-to choice.

Mid-Range Pick:
PreSonus Eris E4.5 Studio Monitors

PreSonus is not a brand that I’m familiar with, but they certainly know how to design a handsome pair of speakers. I like the looks of these guys – there are no funky colors here, but they still look cool.

The pricing is halfway between entry-level and mid-level. Hopefully this means that some of the iffy build quality we see with the sub-$100 speakers will be less evident here. The sub is a 4.5-inch kevlar unit, which is just cool to say, honestly. You can tell people that you have bulletproof speakers – sort of. Don’t shoot them.

Each speaker has a healthy 25W of power and the frequency response of 70 Hz to 20 kHz. That’s a smidge disappointing, actually. There are cheaper speakers that are wider at both ends of the spectrum and some people can hear above 20 kHz even later in life. Still, most people past their twenties have descended solidly into the world of 18 kHz and nothing higher.

I do like the flexibility that these provide. You can run them as monitors with a flattened response, but you can also choose from several deliberate coloration simulations.

Opinions on the sound of these speakers are almost uniformly positive and they come highly recommended for home users, even by professional audio engineers. It think this is a great compromise between the price of the Rokits and the frailty of cheaper speakers. It’s also a good thing that these are so compact. If you are short on space this becomes an even better choice.

High-end Pick:
Yamaha HS8 Studio Monitor

To say that Yamaha is a legendary audio brand is a bit of an understatement. They have made some of the best amps, speakers, and basically any other piece of technology meant to make noise. Many other great audio devices also turn out to have Yamaha speakers or other components inside. Yamaha knows audio, so I have high expectations of any product they put their brand on.

This single HS8 speaker costs more than a pair of Rokits, so that’s a sign you are in for something special here.

You can buy this speaker in both black and white, but either way the speaker cone is white. Personally I think the white looks better as a result.

For this price you are treated to a sizeable eight-inch woofer and a one-inch tweeter. The frequency response is wide, from 38 Hz – 30 kHz. Not as wide as some cheaper units here, but honestly, it doesn’t make an audible difference.

One of these speakers packs an insane amount of punch. This is bi-amped to produce 120W of power per speaker. A pair would therefore double that. These will bring the roof down – make no mistake.

These speakers are a hi-tech dream. As monitors they are near-field speakers that reduce reverb from room objects. The cabinets themselves are made to avoid any unwanted sound from the speaker cab itself. The new speaker designs are also responsible for the wider frequency response.

I also like how much control these speakers give you, letting you tune the sound until it’s as pure as you want it to be.

Responses from buyers to these speakers is overwhelmingly positive. They are powerful and clean, and will make high-end audio sources really shine. The only real issue is that apparently the speakers are sensitive to interference from certain sources such as the odd computer monitor. A bit of positioning should do the trick if that ever happens, though.

I have little doubt in my mind that these are some of the best speakers a home audio enthusiast can have. Studio professionals might want to aim higher, but for the rest of us there would be little point.

Top Entry-Level Pick:
Mackie CR Series CR3 Reference Speakers

Mackie is a name that I immediately associate with rock and roll music equipment. Knowing them for their live audio equipment, it can be hard to remember that they are good at a range of product types.

These reference speakers are massively popular and by just looking at them you can tell why. They manage to look like professional studio equipment, while that strategic dash of neon color gives them rockstar credibility. Suffice it to say I like the looks of these speakers a lot.

Since these are reference speakers, you’ll get the EQ emphasis of home HiFi equipment, so be sure that’s what you want. This does make them suitable for use in place of that HiFi equipment, however, and the goods news is that their specs look great.

With a range of 80Hz to 20 kHz you really are getting the full range of your audio or at least the bits you are able to hear. That’s great for vinyl, which has such a wide frequency range.

At this price these speakers are incredible value for money. The speakers are powerful, but designed in such as way so as not to distort or perform poorly within their rated levels. There is also a lot in terms of user-friendly features.

One of my favorites is the fact that you can put the speakers in any left-right order you want. There’s a manual stereo flipping switch on the units themselves – such a simple idea that solves a pet peeve of mine.

Apart from your turntable, you can easily connect a range of things to these speakers. The AUX inputs are on the front panel, so Mackie really has designed these to be at the center of your audio equipment. One thing you’ll have to give up for this entry-level model is Bluetooth, which is a neat feature.

The CR3s also come with a lot of patch cords and other cables. Buying new equipment only to realize that you have to head back out to find the right cable is one of those painful realities audio geeks have to face, but even at this price Mackie has done their bit to be the good guys. It even comes with isolation pads right out the box.

The only downside, of course, is that this has the smallest subwoofer in the range, at only three inches. This does not affect the frequency range in any way that matters, but the bass is not as powerful as that of the higher-up models. Still, you get the same total amount of wattage at 50W, so these can kick butt in most rooms.

Some professional users have noted that the bass is a bit overemphasized, but that’s not the use case I’m looking at for them here. If you want speakers that give great HiFi sound from your vinyls, these will do the job well.

The only really worrying thing here to me is the smattering of complaints from people that experienced build quality issues – switch failures and other unexplained problems. Still, it’s not widespread and there’s always warranty returns. As a great entry-level product to expand your music listening experience, I like these quite a lot.

M-Audio AV32 Studio Monitor Speakers

I’ve been aware of M-AUDIO for a while, but I’ve never really used their products personally.
This rather affordable set of studio monitors looks fantastic though. This is a really classic pro-audio look that I guess is now a bit out of fashion. It’s very 80s or 90s, if you ask me.

These are very compact home studio monitors that are designed to let you mix your tracks at home, but for audio purists who want uncolored sound from their vinyls this is also an affordable way to get a bit more purity from your recording.

This takes stock standard RCA connectors so you can simply hook your preamp directly to the speakers. As with the CR3s, you get a three-inch subwoofer that should be fine for small rooms or desktop setups.

You get 10-watts per channel (left and right), which might not sound like a lot, but is plenty powerful. As with all monitors, much of the magic sauce is in the cabinet design and waveguides. These are made from materials that minimize reverb and other colorations that are not part of the original recording.

The signal to noise ratio is over 90 dBA, which is in excess of all but the very best vinyl setups. All in all, this is a very nice package for the money; a few years ago I would not have easily believed that you could get real studio monitors at this price.

Well, maybe I still don’t believe it. According to people who actually do audio production with these, they leave a bit to be desired, with a degree of unwanted coloration in the audio. However, for listening to music they are an excellent choice. But, just as with the CR3s, there is also a smattering of complaints about build quality. It seems that it is just hard to have something with great sound and solid build for less than a hundred bucks.

In terms of actual audio performance for non-professional use, you are unlikely to be disappointed. Just take care of them and you’ll be fine. If you have kids or nosy pets however, the lack of speaker grille may be an issue. Just something to keep in mind.

JBL LSR 305 Studio Monitor Pair

JBL has a reputation for good quality speakers, but their designs have always been a bit hit or miss. I’ve never liked their styling and these speakers do nothing to change that opinion. I find these pretty unattractive and would avoid them on looks alone, personally.

However, also typical of JBL is the great performance to price ratio. You’ll read a lot of praise from professional sound people for these speakers. They are ideal for people who actually want to do studio work, but for our purposes I just can’t get over how ugly these things are, so I can’t recommend them over other speakers who do just as well but look better. Styling may not be so important in the studio, but you want your vintage audio setup to look good!

Behringer M16

Unfortunately, I have had quite a lot of experience with Behringer equipment in the past and much of it was quite expensive. In my experience, when you buy something from Behringer it’s almost with the understanding that it will last a year or two and then break. I have yet to buy a Behringer item that did not begin to seriously malfunction within two years. It’s a pity because while they work, they are pretty decent.

In this context, if we look at the Mackies, for example, iffy build-quality at the low end is not exactly rare. So even if these MS16 speakers “live up” to my experiences with the brand, they won’t stand out in that particular company.

For your money you get two speakers that are stylistically-challenged to say the least. I’m also surprised that they went with speaker grilles, as so many monitors eschew this in pursuit of minimum audio coloration.

I also can’t fathom why they would put such big ugly white lettering on the front of these speakers. Overall they look like construction equipment and I’d want to hide them behind things.

You get four-inch woofers and 16 watts of total power. It will take RCA inputs as well, no sweat.

As I expect from Behringer, the sound performance is pretty good; if that’s all you care about then these may be a good purchase. The negatives, however, make me feel like giving these a pass.

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