I had a friend tell me once that a monitor was better than a regular speaker for my home entertainment system. While I can easily see how this misconception can be reached, it is not that simple of an answer. They are both useful for your home studio. Also, both have different characteristics for two different purposes.
They both have their benefits and main differences, as well as uses. This chart should help break down those differences of studio monitors vs regular speakers.
Practical use Studio Monitor Regular speaker
Frequency Boost Flat, no boost, uniform response Depending on size and brand, can be boosted,
Normal Use For hearing in the original context with no added sound For enjoying a finished product
Concert Use Used for inward-facing so the musician can hear what is being played and keep in tune. Used for the crowd to enjoy the show and music coming out with amplifications.
Production Use For mixing tones in production and getting the true sound without speaker input or limitations. Used to sample the finished product on live speakers.
Sound Projection Short Distances Long distances
Home Theater Use No Perfect
Home Studio Use Perfect For enjoyment, or review, not editing.
Studio monitors are more practical for mixing and recording than listening. Could a studio monitor work inside of your studio apartment or as computer speakers? Yes, they can. However, they may not be the most ideal in such a situation.
How are Studio Monitors Different from Regular Speakers?
Most speakers have a predetermined frequency setting built into them to distort or amplify certain sounds, changing the way a sound is heard through the speaker. This is great if you are trying to enjoy your latest MP3 download, but not so great if you are the one producing the sounds.
A studio monitor uses a flat frequency response for playback audio. This means that it does not amplify any of the frequencies such as the bass, or treble frequencies in the sound wave. That doesn’t mean that the sound doesn’t have a good sound wave.
We have all seen some type of wavelength across a flat line before, the top part is the crest or high portions, and the bottom part of the line is the trough for illustration purposes.
Like the example above of an ocean wave, the wavelength is the distance between the two top portions of the sound wave and the frequency is the number of times a wave passed through a specific point in time or point on the screen.
The Basics of Sound Waves
In a sound wave the pitch is known as the frequency, the number of times the wave passes through a given point. The faster the wave is moving, the higher the pitch or frequency is, think of a motorcycle driving by your window at night, this has a loud but low pitch. The sound waves are moving slowly through the air.
Compare that to a glass bottle breaking in your kitchen, the pitch is higher, and the sound is over quicker compared to the motorcycle driving by. This is important when it comes to studio monitors versus regular speakers.
The other aspect to consider is the tone, which is the distance between the tops or bottoms of each wave, or the wavelength. Setting the tone is almost the same as setting the frequency or timing of the sound.
Let us go back to our example of an ocean wave. If you snapped a photo, the tone would be the distance between the top of one wave to the other. The farther the distance between the two would naturally mean the longer the frequency or lower.
Does a Monitor Amplify the Sound?
The most important aspect is the amplitude of the sound wave, which is the height from the middle line on either side that the wave travels. The top portion of this line is what determines the amplitude of the sound. This controls the volume of the sound.
A monitor speaker does not amplify the soundwave it tries to leave everything flat. However, you can have a studio monitor that is near-field, to far-field. This would mean that it can adjust the way that the sound travels through the amplitude of the sound wave while keeping the frequency relatively flat.
So, a shorter distance, or smaller amplitude, would mean a softer sound. Think of the ocean wave again, the taller the wave, the louder it is, the same is true for your sound waves. Maybe this diagram will help provide a visual model of how a sound wave naturally behaves. This is important in understanding the way a monitor works.
Understanding how a sound wave is formed and the properties of a soundwave is also crucial to understanding how a speaker works. Sound on the output level is an increase in amplitude or power from the device that is providing the signal.
How Do Sound Waves Operate Inside the Studio Monitor versus Regular Speakers?
Regular speakers are designed to amplify or change the amplitude of the sound wave by increasing the power each wave has. A monitor leaves the sound wave virtual untouched so you can hear it in the raw form, or original form. The naked ear, so to say.
A monitor makes no changes to the pitch, tone, or the amplitude of the sound waves allowing you to place together with the sounds in their raw form for optimal sound quality across any device. Making the response uniform across all devices, allowing the device to make the changes.
This allows producers, editors, and other musical professionals the tools they need to hear the sound without limitations or enhancements. Which is perfect for someone who works with sound or produces sound in a studio. You aren’t going to be disappointed by a lack of bass when you listen back on different speakers or headphones because you have been monitoring the ‘true’ sound and not an enhanced version of it.
Since studio monitors are used for the production aspects of audio products, it is safe to say that a regular speaker is used for the consumption of audio products. It is also important to note that monitors measure volume in decibels, not frequency.
A decibel is a ratio in regard to sound level pressure, or SLP, which is what is used to determine how you hear it. For reference, the human ear is the starting point for measurement, at 0SPL.
How do Regular Speakers Work?
A Regular speaker uses a magnet to push a signal out of the cone-shaped interface and make sound travel, as you crank the volume knob it increases the electrical force that controls the amplitude in the sound wave. Remember our diagram from above?
Different speakers will have different limitations on what they can produce, and since their main function is to increase the amplitude of the frequency, they must alter the original sound wave to increase the distance in which it travels.
Also, the sound wave may take longer, so the speaker also needs to be able to adjust the tone, or the treble and bass of the sound in order to compensate for the change in amplitude. When you change the treble setting on your speakers, you’re changing the amplitude, or volume of those notes, and the same with the bass notes.
These tone controls change the distance between the tops of the waves, by lowering or raising the power for each of the different pitches. This change in amplitude for each type of wave changes the volume of each section. Are you still with me? I hope that wasn’t too scientific.
Speakers do not have the ability to change the pitch of the soundwave; you would need a soundboard for that or some good editing software. The regular speaker has a very simple job to do and not very complicated.
Putting It All Together
For a simple answer, a studio monitor is great for production while a regular speaker is used for the enjoyment of the sound. Having a similar approach, the studio monitor has a different purpose altogether. A studio monitor does not work the same as a regular speaker, in the same manner.
The circuit boards are built differently to handle different elements of audio production. The speaker is the most common audio output device amongst your common consumers, and a studio monitor is used more on the back end of production.
A regular speaker can handle an amplifier, and other audio control devices to improve your personal sound experience. Regular speakers and studio monitor also come in all shapes and sizes some with specific purposes, others with just general consumption in mind.
Think of a monitor speaker as one of the several types of speakers with particular uses, the clue is in the name ‘monitor’. There are all sorts of different types of speakers, that have a specific purpose, Such as a loudspeaker, or a plasma speaker.
Most people think of the types of drivers as a different type of speaker, but the studio monitor is just another dynamic speaker with a specified purpose the same as a tweeter or midrange audio speaker.
Dynamic Audio Components
The Dynamic audio system is the type of system that we are most accustomed to in the modern world. It features a stationary Magnet with a coil magnet. The coil magnet pushes vibrations through a cone, which points the sound in a general direction.
The changes in the types of material used during the production of the dynamic audio speakers are what change the quality of the sound emitting from them. However, they all operate in the exact same manner.
Since most other speaker types are industry-specific and used in different applications from scientific research to movie theaters, for now, we are only sticking with the dynamic speakers.
One of the main components of a dynamic audio system is the drivers or what are commonly known as different speaker types. The tweeter, mid-range, subwoofer, and full-range speakers are what make up the entire frequency spectrum. Can you imagine trying to sift through the audio files for a new action film using your home audio system or computer speakers?
Some speakers have multiple speakers in one box called a cabinet to separate the high, low, and mid sounds that are coming out of the input station. These types of speakers tend to be more expensive and useful for large rooms and big crowds.
Drivers make up a system or stack that you then use to display your audio or enjoy your audio entertainment. There are several factors to consider with a dynamic audio system. Getting the correct components can make or break your home theater system or show.
Most complete systems are measured by the following classifications
- Speaker or driver type
- Rated power
- Number of drivers
- Crossover frequency
- Frequency response (This is where the Monitor shines, the response is flat or zero)
- Small parameters
- And maximum sound pressure level or SPL
Every Dynamic sound system has these measurement components. Including monitors, the main difference here is the frequency response.
What is Frequency Response?
Frequency response is how fast the speaker responds to the frequency to produce a signal with no distortion. Giving the listener a complete and natural sound wave to work with. This will allow the producer or editor to isolate the different tones and place them together without altering the incorrect line.
In all practical use, the frequency response time for a studio monitor is as flat as possible to avoid any misconfiguration of an audio file. As mentioned earlier, the sound waves for editing need to be pure in order to get an accurate sound quality.
Have you ever played a song on one set of headphones and then switched to your car stereo and it sounds different? Not much, but something is different in sound quality? This is mostly attributed to the frequency response from regular speakers which can vary ± 2db for most speakers. Which can change the way the output is affected by the input.
The frequency response has a lot to do with the bandwidth also, which is the distance between the top of the pitch and the lower pitch, or the hertz, the speed in which the frequency is moving. As hertz is a measurement of time, it measures how long it takes for one complete cycle to pass through the threshold per second.
Having a flat frequency response simply put, means that the output signal is as close to the input signal as it can get. There is no boost or change in pitch, tone, or amplitude of the signal.
Total Harmonic Threshold (THD)
Regular speakers can add distorted noise to your sound quality, which affects the sound quality across different devices. Some regular speakers will boost lower pitches and increase higher pitches just to make something sound better.
Simply put, this is the amount of distortion from added circuit noise. This measurement is the one that you should pay close attention to when looking for a studio monitor. The lower the number, the better, most studio monitors may not even put this label on their speakers because the measurement is so low (which would be a good thing).
You will find this measurement on a studio pair of headphones, which is the measurement of the distortion added from the circuit board for a clear sound. Even with some audio headphones, you want to stay away from high THD numbers. Some can add as much as 1% distortion to your audio.
Selecting the Correct Speaker
Every monitor is going to be different in the sense that they will all also have a different purpose and size to them. If you have a small podcast that you’re trying to perfect the audio for, then a near-field system may be a good choice.
They make different monitors for different types of projects, you need to know what your ideal system to playback your audio is, and then pick the appropriate monitor. You must experiment with your system if you are just starting out, and this is your first monitor I would recommend something affordable to help get you started.
Depending on your budget you can get a monitor system anywhere from $100- a few thousand. At least this way you can get some good practice under your belt before sending out that perfect mixtape to a producer.
Home Music Studios
For most home-based studios, a good bookshelf monitor is all you would need for editing some solid audio files. You are going to need more than one speaker. You’re going to need left audio and right audio, as well as some good software.
A word of caution with monitors is that they are not the all magical fix to everything, are you have ever heard the saying garbage in garbage out you will understand. If your inputs are not up to par, and you’re using the microphone you got with the latest rock band game, you may want to consider upgrading your input equipment.
You may want to consider upgrading your microphone and putting a good solid pop filter on it to get some quality audio going into your studio monitor. The last thing you want is to spend all the money and time recording a sick track only to find that the microphone was distorting the input.