You’ve bought yourself a pair of monitor speakers (studio monitors) and when you try to connect them to your computer you see that everyone seems to say you need to also buy an audio interface. But is this true?
Well no, you do not need an audio interface to connect your monitor speakers to a laptop or computer. You can do this using a simple 3.5mm headphone jack to ¼ inch “Y” cable. However, it is still recommended that for best performance you eventually use an audio interface to connect.
In this article, I will explain step by step how to connect monitor speakers without an audio interface and I will explain the pros and cons of this method. Finally, I will explain why I think an audio interface is always worth the investment.
How to connect monitor speakers without an audio interface
Your computer, laptop or even phone is perfectly capable of translating digital signals to audio signals for you to hear. This conversion of signal type is done internally by a built-in sound card.
Output from your computer or other device
You can then usually output this signal either via built in speakers, or you can connect external headphones or speakers via what is referred to as the “headphone jack”.
This is a small 3.5mm hole that can output the sound in stereo (i.e it can separate the sound and send it to left and right speakers or headphones separately).
An example from my macbook is shown below. It is usually marked with a handy picture of some headphones.
Inputs on monitor speakers
Our powered monitor speakers each have their own separate power supplies and their own separate inputs. They can work entirely independent of one another, hence why it is actually possibly to just buy one on it’s own.
You have a couple of options for inputs on most monitor speakers. These will most likely be a ¼ inch jack input, similar to that seen on a guitar or guitar amp and an XLR input, which you may have seen on a microphone. In this example I will use the ¼ inch jack input as I have the correct cable but you can use the XLR also.
In the below image you can see these both marked as ‘inputs’. The green cable is plugged into the 1/4 inch jack input. The XLR type connection is above it.
Order the right cable
The type of cable you will require is therefore one that can split a single stereo 3.5mm sized headphone output to two separate ¼ inch sized mono speaker connections. Luckily these are available very cheaply on Amazon and elsewhere.
This will separate the stereo signal out so you can hear different aspects of your music or recordings from each speaker.
A very important thing to remember here is to get a cable where the “Y” splits far enough apart. Some of the cables available have a very short split, such as the one shown below. This will still work but you won’t be able to have the speakers placed either side of your monitor screen or laptop screen, which is where you want them for optimum listening experience.
A short Y split will effectively mean you have to have both speakers right next to each other. Which will mean you can get a very loud sound, but it is kind of pointless.
The cable recommended above is the right type you need.
Connect the cable
Once the correct cable arrives, you are ready to connect.
The cable for the right speakers (as you are looking at them to listen) is pretty much always marked with a red ring or red sticker. Just remember red=right. So plug this into the right hand speaker and the other one, usually marked in white or black, into the left hand speaker.
Make sure you have the headphone output selected. In windows this can quickly be selected by clicking the small speaker symbol in the bottom right of the taskbar.
And it really is that simple.
So now you know that, why is everybody so obsessed with connecting via an audio interface. Well I will now explain.
Why an audio interface is the better option
Higher quality audio
An audio interface also contains a soundcard that converts the digital signals it receives from a computer or other device (usually via USB) to an audio signal. This is known as the DAC (digital to analog converter). Taking a series of digital 1s and 0s and converting them to an audio waveform you can hear.
The difference though is that the soundcard in an audio interface is dedicated to this purpose and to producing high-quality audio.
A soundcard in a computer or laptop is cheaper and designed to serve multiple functions from gaming to video streaming and much more besides. The quality of the audio will be fine but it won’t be as high quality as that from an audio interface.
Separate balanced outputs
An audio interface will have separate “balanced” outputs. One for each speaker. This may not immediately sound like a good thing because you need two cables rather than one, but the fact you can use balanced cables makes a difference.
A balanced cable has a very clever way of cancelling out any unwanted noise. A common problem in a home studio setting.
With standard cables you get annoying background hums and buzzes creeping into your output sound caused by electrical interference entering the cables from other electrics in the studio.
A balanced cable uses a phase cancellation trick to eliminate this noise giving you a smooth clean audio experience from your monitor speakers. For more detail on how it does this check out this article.
Because of the way this works. It is simply not possible to obtain a balanced output to both speakers from your single 3.5mm headphone output. The cable mentioned earlier in this article will send unbalanced signals to both speakers unfortunately giving you no way to get rid of any background hums or other interference.
Although laptops and computer drivers are improving all the time, the drivers are still not dedicated to audio and can cause some issues. This issue is known as “latency” or “lag” and refers to a small gap in the time it takes from the audio playing to you hearing it from your speakers.
Again, this is because the drivers in your laptop or computer are not dedicated to audio production. You can download additional drivers such as those from ASIO which will help though.
So if you are just using your monitor speakers for listening to audio then this probably won’t concern you. But if you are using it for music production and recording then any latency, even tiny amounts, can drive you insane!
Imagine trying to record guitar along to a drum track and realising when you listen back that you were slightly off time on every note.
An audio interface has dedicated drivers built in to reduce latency to virtually nothing. Another great reason to invest in one when you have the money.
Best Audio Interface for a Beginner
There are plenty of audio interfaces available on the market now with a range of different specs and therefore at a range of different prices. I regularly keep a page of my favorites updated here.
I would recommend getting a modern one with a USB connection so you can easy connect to any laptop or computer.
Then I would recommend at least two inputs to allow you to plug a couple of different microphones or instruments in for recording. Unless you are planning on trying to record an entire live band then that is all you will really need as a beginner.
I am a big fan of the Focusrite Scarlett interfaces. I’ve owned and still use the 2i4 interface for the past few years and it has never let me down. The build quality is amazing, the sound quality is fantastic and there is no latency. It also looks great in metallic red too!
So yes, it is definitely possible to connect and use your studio monitor speakers without the need for an audio interface. But there are some cons to doing so that you have to bear in mind.
A good audio interface is a key part of any home recording studio setup and they are now available for very reasonable prices. I would definitely recommend buying one if you haven’t already.