How to Choose the Right Listening Equipment
Everyone wants to have a great studio. However, it is out of reach to most of us due to monetary limits. In this post I want to help you to choose the right listening equipment for your budget. I am not going to recommend any specific monitors or headphones. Instead, I will tell you how to choose the right ones for you. Let’s get started!
First I am going to talk about the monitor side, because those are, in my opinion, more important. While you can get the same quality on headphones for cheaper, I personally feel that producing on monitors is much easier compared to headphones.
Something for under 100€?
If you don’t have even a hundred to spend on speakers, it doesn’t really matter what you get. I used Logitech desktop speakers for years before getting my hands on proper monitors. Just get whatever you can and use them until you have money for some real speakers.
I’ve got a couple of hundred euros (or more), what now?
Now we’re talking. The first thing to know is that you must get studio monitors, not regular speakers. You may ask what’s the difference. Well, regular speakers are optimized for listening to music. This means that they are engineered to sound as good as possible for a great listening experience. This is good for regular users, but we are not listening, we are making something to listen to. This is where studio monitors come in. Those are optimized for the flattest sound possible. Their objective is for you to hear every sound just as they are, with nothing boosted or reduced.
Think of it this way: your music player might have an EQ in it. If you change to a preset that boosts lows and highs, your music starts to magically sound better. But when you turn that EQ off, your music suddenly sounds bland and boring. Imagine if you had this EQ on when you’re making the track and you can’t do anything to fix that. This is what regular speakers do to your music. When someone with different speakers than yours listens to your track, they hear it differently. And usually that is a bad thing. Using flat studio monitors makes sure that your music sounds good on most speakers.
Now that you know what kind of speakers you want, you probably want to know which ones are the best. This is not that simple. While it is true that flat frequency response is the most important thing, it’s still not black and white. This is because completely flat frequency response is nearly impossible to acquire. And to make things worse, expensive doesn’t always mean better. Brands, however, can tell you a lot. And the first thing to say about that is, do not buy KRK monitors. Especially cheaper KRKs are actually optimized for listening and not producing, having a boosted bass response. As mentioned earlier, this makes them sound good but bad for producing. More expensive KRKs are good, but at that price range there are better alternatives out there.
For the cheapest price range of 100-200€, I recommend getting Mackie or M-Audio monitors. While those brands fall a bit short on the more expensive side, on that price range they’re usually good for the money. There can also be some brands that you’ve never heard of, but if you can’t listen to them before you buy, it’s a gamble. If you have a bit more money, from 200 to 500€, Yamahas and Behringers are really good, and I personally have a pair of Behringer Truth B2030A monitors. Adams and Genelecs can also be good, but I don’t have any experience with them. At this price range most of the monitors are sold as single monitors and not pairs, so keep that in mind when browsing your preferred store.
When you go above 500€, bad choices are not so obvious, as there are not many bad brands anymore. Checking reviews is always important when choosing a pair, but it becomes even more important the more money you want to put in. Adam, Genelec, EVE Audio, Focal, and when you go really high, Neumann, KS Digital and Dynaudio are all great brands, and I’m sure there are more out there that I am not versed in.
Headphones are especially important if you live in an apartment or have some other reason to keep quiet. They can also be also much cheaper than quality studio monitors. I don’t have much experience on studio headphones, but AKG, Sony, Audio-Technica, Fostex and Roland are good brand choices. Beware, however, that some of these brands also make headphones aimed towards regular listening, and as I mentioned earlier that is not good at all. Because I’m not so used to this topic and my current headphones are Pioneer HDJ-1500 which are DJ headphones and not studio headphones, I recommend that you read below on how to choose a pair of monitors or headphones and search online for a good pair.
How do I choose?
When choosing your monitors (or headphones), it’s always best to listen to them beforehand and check frequency response charts if such are available. If there’s a professional music store near you, go there and ask to listen to the equipment they have in stock. When listening to these, bring a reference track that has presence in all frequency areas, bass, mid and highs. Try to find a pair that play the song balanced in a way that you can hear everything in it. The monitors should have bass, especially if you produce electronic music, but the bass must not be strong, but instead just audible and balanced in comparison to the rest of the track. Also ask for recommendations from the store clerk.
If this is not possible where you live, your best place to find recommendations is online reviews. This can be a bit two-edged sword, since some reviews are made by inexperienced people and others might take in money from manufacturers to recommend their products. A good trick is to go to a professional web store such as thomann.de and check the monitors that not only have good reviews, but lots of them. If many people say something, it’s more likely to be true than if there’s just a single review on the product. Prefer written reviews, as those are usually made by more professional people than those who just leave stars under the product. And remember to take everything with a pinch of salt. If a product has 50 good reviews and one bad, it’s possible that one person is wrong. But if a product has 10 good ratings and 5 bad ratings, it’s possible that the product is bad and the 10 people just don’t know their shit.
This will be just a quick disclaimer as it’s not the point of this post. However, it is really important. You can’t just connect studio monitors into your computer’s 1/8″ speaker port and call it a day. You need something called an audio interface. These are external sound cards that turn the digital signals made by your computer to analog signals that your speakers can play. Your computer does that on it’s own, yes, but the quality is not that great. There are interference signals made by your computer that can be really audible on a good pair of speakers, and the conversion process done by your computer’s internal sound card can be pretty bad. External audio interfaces come in different prices and feature sets, but what you want from an interface made for studio monitors is balanced output and a volume knob. XLR inputs are also important if you ever want to connect good quality microphones to your computer. And of course, if you use headphones, it’s good for your interface to have a headphone amplifier. I personally have the Focusrite Scarlett 2i4. But more of that in another post.
At this point, I want to let you know that I am by no means a professional, but I’ve done a lot of research when writing this article and I wouldn’t write anything I am not sure of, unless I specifically say so when writing. In the end whatever works for you is probably good, but be open-minded towards products that may be better than your current equipment. Thank you for reading this post. All of the generic stock photos are from stocksnap.io and the specific product images (Behringer Truth B2030A and Focusrite Scarlett 2i4) are from their respective websites.