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There comes a time when most bedroom producers and musicians ask themselves, “Should I buy studio monitors? If so, what should I get?” Whether you’re making the jump from headphones to monitors, upgrading your current monitors, or starting fresh with nothing, choosing the right pair for your needs per your budget is important. We wrote this guide to help you navigate the process.
Why You Should Trust Us
The Equipboard team has decades of experience when it comes to studio sound. We can’t look at every studio monitor on the market, so to get the initial list we scour the Web for reviews and forum posts to see what gets the most recommendations. We then order the monitors and spend a lot of hours testing them out over several days. We do a little bit of everything - listen to music, play guitar through them (we use Native Instruments Guitar Rig), play a synth through them, produce a test track, and mix down some stems. We involve as many people as we can in the process so our final reviews are well-rounded. After days of fatiguing our ears, we pick the top ones that impressed us the most, taking into consideration value for the money.
Note, we do not test in a professionally treated room, so we are using the trim and tuning controls (when available) to make the monitors sound the best in our environment.
A Note on Our Recommendations
Like we mention in the What You Need to Know section, the size of the woofer is likely the most important consideration, and affects the price the most. Take the Yamaha HS “family” of monitors for instance - you’ve got the HS5 (5” woofer) which is the least expensive, followed by the HS7, and then the HS8 being the most expensive. It’s not exactly fair to directly compare the largest speaker Yamaha makes with the smallest speaker KRK makes.
For this reason, we’re trying our best to keep it apples to apples by recommending the 5” speaker version of all the studio monitors we’re testing out. We’ll also mention what other sizes are available. Remember, you have the option to start out with 5” speakers and add a subwoofer now (or later), or shell out a little more cash and go with a bigger speaker size from the jump. You can mix bass with confidence on 5” speakers, you just won’t really be able to feel it as much.
We split out list up into 2 groups:
The best studio monitors that can be had for under $500 per pair (assuming the 5" speaker version)
The best high-end monitors, where you're looking at $1000+ per pair
Yamaha has long been hailed as an industry leader when it comes to monitoring, with their well-respected HS80 monitors and legendary NS10s. The Yamaha HS5 are the smallest speakers in the HS line, but they hit way above their weight class. In fact, there’s not much out there that is as flat and accurate in this price range.
The rear of the speaker offers the controls you would expect to find in a quality monitor (level knob, XLR and ¼” input, both balanced), you also have ROOM CONTROL and HIGH TRIM switches. Room Control is used so that you can compensate for bass that builds up if you place the monitor near a wall (which is an issue many small studios have to deal with). High Trim lets you boost or cut 2 dB above 2 kHz if you need to. Having these options is great to be able to dial in a good balance, since we can’t all place these perfectly in an acoustically-treated room. Their footprint is a very nice and compact 6.7” x 8.7”, with a single speaker weighing 11.7 lbs. If you opt for the HS8 big brother, you’re looking at a 9.8” x 13.1” footprint. The Yamaha HS5 is certainly a better fit for smaller rooms and studio spaces.
In the 5” speaker range, there are a lot of options to consider, and finding the best ones can be an exercise in frustration... which is likely why you’re here reading this guide! While its competitors all have strengths and weaknesses, the Yamaha HS5 shines when it comes to having the flattest sound signature of them all. You want an honest pair of monitors? You got it. They suffer from the limitations of most 5” woofers, which is a low-end that tapers off rather early. There is perhaps one flaw to speak of, which is a rather unnatural peak around 1KHz, but it's not a dealbreaker by any means.
Stepping up to the HS8 allows you to extend the low end further, and you may not need a subwoofer at that point... unless you’re mixing particularly bass-heavy music (Yamaha’s HS8S Subwoofer is a perfect complement). In a way, the 5” woofer limitation in the HS5 might even make this speaker more honest as the bass is a little more focused and punchy, and less boomy (though that can be an issue with the room size and setup).
Bottom Line: The bottom line is that these are not only a great value when it comes to 5” speakers; around - and even above - their price range you’ll be hard pressed to find a near-field monitor that provides this much clarity and detail with an honest and flat response. You would seriously need to spend 2-3 times as much before you had a tangible improvement. With the Yamaha HS series you will be able to hear details in your mixes you never even knew were there, and the majority of users say if you get your mix sounding great on these, it’ll sound great everywhere.
The HS5 excels with crystal-clear mids, and the high-end detail is just superb. You could start off with these, and because of how punchy, clear, and downright honest they are the quality of your mixes will only improve. Eventually, add the Yamaha HS8S Subwoofer, and you’ve got a setup that can last you the rest of your music production life. On top of all that, these monitors look great, and are very good for casual listening.
In our previous best studio monitor guide, we recommended the old version of these monitors, the JBL LSR305. Ever since the LSR305 were released (between 2013 and 2014), everywhere you looked you would see a recommendation for them - not only because they were a fantastic value for the money, but also excellent, accurate studio monitors regardless of cost. Well, lucky for us the JBL 305PMKII monitors take everything that made the LSR305 great and improve upon it.
Looks-wise, the 305PMKII sport a glossy look, as opposed to the older model’s more matte appearance. We (along with many other reviewers) don’t love the new glossy look, but hey, you can’t win ‘em all. What’s much more important is this monitor’s features and sound. Speaking of features, JBL took some of the best features from their flagship M2 monitors (we’re talking $20,000 monitors) and packed them into the 305PMKII. The Image Control Waveguide is the buzzword here, which is a technology that basically broadens the sweet spot, meaning that wherever you stand in the room, you can hear an accurate representation of the music. We tested it out by having multiple people in the room and listening to the same mix, and we gotta say we were pretty impressed with this tech.
The 305PMKII feature a 1” tweeter and a 5” woofer, and if you up your budget you can pick up the 306 model (6” woofer) and 308 model (8” woofer). On the back panel you’ve got XLR and ¼” balanced inputs, a volume knob, High Frequency trim control (-2dB, 0, and +2dB), and the very cool Boundary EQ which is a nice little feature to compensate the low frequency in case you place your speakers on a table or against a wall. Don’t sleep on this feature, learn to use it!
So, how do they sound? In one word, incredible... at least per this price point. The bass is surprisingly good for a 5” woofer, slightly more “present” and linear than the Yamaha HS5. At higher volumes all of our audio tests showed the 305PMKII remain accurate and clean, with no added harshness or distortion. High frequency transient response has been improved from the previous version, thanks to house-built JBL transducers.
Bottom Line: It’s our job to help you make a purchase decision for your studio, and tell you what’s good about these monitors and also what’s bad - we’re hard-pressed to find flaws with these. Based on the price point these are entry-level studio monitors, but honestly they perform like they cost about 3x what they do. Props to JBL for taking an already immensely popular series, and bringing out more improvements. If you’re so inclined, we recommend adding the JBL LSR10S 10” woofer to these. You also have the option of the larger 306PMkII and 308PMkII.
Between the 305PMKII and Yamaha HS5 it’s a toss up; you really can’t go wrong with either.
Next up is the well known KRK Rokit series. It’s hard to find a “best studio monitor” rundown without KRK making an appearance. The KRK RP5G3 (G3 because they are the third generation) are the little sibling of the series sporting a 5” woofer, with the 6, 8, and 10 models available for those who want more bass and can shell out more cash.
This studio monitor is polarizing. Discussions involving it typically go like this:
I love my KRK Rokits
Yeah, but they’re not flat at all
The critique is definitely valid - KRK Rokit 5s have more of a “V-shaped” sound signature than the other studio monitors on this list, meaning that the bass and highs are boosted. This is not exactly ideal if your aim is to have the flattest, most honest monitors possible. A lot of people seem to not be able to look past this, but in our opinion that’s a mistake. The thing is, these monitors do sound good. If more bass response is what you want and you’re not interested in a separate subwoofer, these are the monitors for you. For what it’s worth, they are easily the most used studio monitors by pro electronic music producers, and if they can work with them, you will be able to also (the star-studded lineup of pro users includes Afrojack, Wolfgang Gartner, Mat Zo, Steve Aoki, Zeds Dead, Ummet Ozcan, and countless others). After all, with any studio monitors you’ll need to get to know them and their quirks. Most owners of the KRKs are fully aware of their sound coloration, and are able to nail down some good mixes regardless.
With their all-black finish and bright yellow cone, KRK makes some of the most distinctive looking speakers around. The rear of the speaker has balanced XLR and ¼” inputs, and as well as an unbalanced RCA input. You’ve got a volume knob, a high frequency level adjust with 4 settings (-2dB to +1dB), and a low frequency level adjust, also with 4 settings (-2dB to +2dB). They are front ported, which is nice if your only option is to place these up against a wall.
Bottom Line: KRK has been a very popular choice over the past few years for pros and beginners alike, and with good reason - their monitors sound great. Unfortunately, the fact that they that don’t provide the flattest response means that - if you’re just starting out producing and mixing - your mixes might sound a little different out of the studio than in it. It’s really just a matter of getting used to these speakers. Outside of that, the build quality is great, and the silver lining of their bass and treble boost is that they are fantastic for casual listening.
Being the least expensive studio monitors on our list, it’s easy to label them “budget” and move on... but wow, these bad boys surprised us. Absolutely killer looks, beginner-friendly tuning features, and very good sound quality means you get way more than what you pay for here. It’s almost hard to believe these cost what they do.
We know, looks only matter a tiny bit when it comes to studio gear, but we have to talk about how sexy these look. The build quality feels solid (not that we were eager to test dropping them on the floor), and they sport a very attractive matte black finish. They have custom-woven kevlar cones which have a very sleek blue tint, and the logo illuminates a cool blue color when they’re switched on, which looks very nice at night.
Onwards to the features. 5.25” woofer, 1” tweeter. They’re front ported, which is better for you if you’ll be placing them near a wall (like in most home studios we’ve seen). On the back panel of the monitor you’ll find quite a few adjustments to tune the sound. Here is where PreSonus Eris E5 kills the competition. Not only do you get way more adjustments than you would expect in this price range, they are also super beginner-friendly and make setting them up perfectly in your imperfect room a breeze. As far as inputs go you can choose between RCA, and balanced ¼” and XLR. The first adjustment is Input Gain, followed by -6dB to +6dB adjustments for your mid and high frequencies. There’s a Low Cutoff switch, which you would use to roll of the low frequencies and let the matching PreSonus Temblor T8 subwoofer take over.
The Acoustic Space switch is awesome. It’s not that other monitors don’t have this adjustment, but PreSonus makes using it so easy! There are diagrams showing you the ideal setting of the switch in case you have your Eris E5 speakers against a wall angled towards you, facing forward, or not up against a wall. It truly makes a difference to the low frequency response, and you’ll love knowing the monitors are properly set up to match your room.
And what of the sound quality? Well, if they weren’t flat and accurate and suited to music production and mixing, they wouldn’t make our list! We found the low end to be satisfactory, the midrange to be crisp and present, and the high end to be pretty detailed. Compared to the competition, there was a little more breakup than we would like at higher volume levels. Compared to the JBL 305PMKII, the sweet spot felt a little narrower (when standing on the other side of the room we didn’t quite hear the mix as well). We did not experience this issue, but we read some accounts of these monitors being pretty sensitive to interference from other devices, causing some crackling and hissing. To make extra sure, keep wireless devices away from them.
Bottom Line: For what they cost, the PreSonus Eris E5 are a total steal. We found it slightly easier getting a mix to sound on-point using the Yamahas and JBLs, but only slightly. If cash is your concern and you want to jump into the world of quality studio monitors, your research should stop here. These should win design awards for how good they look, they feature multiple adjustments to easily tune them to sound good in your room, and the sound signature is flat and honest.
Mackie is a trusted name in the pro audio world, so after seeing numerous recommendations around the Web we were excited to test out their CR line of studio monitors. To keep the playing field level, we got our hands on the Mackie CR5BT model, with a 5” woofer and ¾” tweeter. The BT in the name stands for Bluetooth, which we’ll cover shortly. These are absolutely "best-of" worthy, and came to an interesting conclusion with them, so read on...
When you open the box, relatively attractive matte black speakers await you, with green trim around the drivers. Not much more to say there, they’ll blend in nicely with other audio gear. The way the pair of speakers is configured is one is amplified and one is passive, so you simply connect the output of the powered one to the input of the other. The powered one has a power switch/volume knob on the front, which we wish all monitors had (we always fumble around the back reaching for power switches). That same speaker also has a headphones jack and AUX input, which can be handy.
On the rear panel you get ¼” and RCA inputs (the Mackie CR5 comes with a 3.5mm to RCA cable). You can also connect to these speakers via Bluetooth, which opens up possibilities like a friend stopping by to play you some music through them.
Another neat feature is that all inputs can work in unison - AUX, rear inputs, and Bluetooth - nothing is muted in favor of another. It’s almost like you get a stripped down audio interface! The Bluetooth sounds ok, not great. If you want to use these monitors for casual listening you’ll appreciate that you can easily beam music to them, but the wired connection sounds vastly superior. They are rear ported, which can present some trouble if you have these up against a wall. Sadly - and this is one of the biggest knocks on these Mackies - there are no adjustments on the rear panel. If your room isn’t properly treated, these simply won’t sound as good.
Sound-wise, we found these to have the detail and neutrality needed for pro audio work, namely mixing and mastering. The mids and highs sound clean and crisp. Without a very treated space, it’s hard to judge the low end. It sounds a bit boomy to us but it might be because they are rear ported and we don’t have an EQ to adjust for it.
Bottom Line: There’s a lot to love about the Mackie CR5BT. The interesting thing Mackie has done here is made a studio monitor that doesn’t feel super serious - meaning, there are several features here that are not meant for the hardcore mixing engineer, like Bluetooth, a lack of tuning/EQ controls, and an AUX input. It’s almost like Mackie made the perfect monitors for someone who produces music and needs a flat frequency response, but also wants to pair up via Bluetooth and throw on a movie or some tunes on them from time to time. If that sounds like you, you should take a very close look at the Mackie CR5BT.
We couldn’t call it a best studio monitor guide without covering our favorite high-end options. Two models stood out to us, and you should expect to spend around $700 per speaker minimum ($1400 for a pair). That’s a nice chunk of change, and we often get the question, is it worth spending that much on monitors? That’s a tough question to answer, it somewhat depends on your level of experience, and also if you have that sort of cash burning a hole in your pocket.
Like most premium products, workmanship, materials, and brand cachet factor into the cost. This quote we found nails it:
Don't forget calibration as well. Cheaper monitors have rudimentary or automated checks before shipping. High end monitors are placed individually in an anechoic room chamber and have their freq, phase and distortion response tested against the master unit and each one goes through a full manual inspection before shipping. Even the circuit boards in high end monitors can require a lot of man hours ... put together in-house manually, hand selecting each individual component which all get tested. source
Adam Audio A7X
Powered: Yes Woofer Size: 7” Frequency Range: 42Hz - 50kHz Total Power: 150W Sizes Available: A3X (4.5"), A5X (5.5"), A7X (7"), A8X (8.5"), A77X (2 x 7")
The Adam Audio A7X studio monitors are, to put it simply, incredible. As we’re writing this review we can’t help but feel like we’re just rehashing all the accolades they’ve already received. However, after testing them for ourselves, we can’t help but say a few words and without a doubt include them in our guide to the best studio monitors.
The A7X monitors feature a 7” woofer and 2” tweeter. The “ribbon” tweeter (“X-ART tweeter” as they call it) makes for a midrange and high end with detail that needs to be heard to be believed. Everything we played through them was clean, and most noticeably not fatiguing to our ears at all. As a disclaimer, per Adam’s recommendations we did put these through a pretty substantial break-in period before testing them (basically just playing pink noise and various songs at a substantial volume around the clock).
With a 7” woofer, the low end is definitely substantial for most applications and we don’t really see a strong need for a subwoofer, thought that’s not to say you shouldn’t go for that. There are some adjustments on the back panel, specifically a ± 4dB Tweeter Level, and a ± 6dB High Shelf and Low Shelf. However, we wouldn’t fully rely on these adjustments to compensate for the flaws in your room. If you’re going to shell out this much cash for monitors, definitely make sure either your room is adequately treated, or that you really know what you’re doing with monitor placement. Anything else would be like putting low quality oil and gas in your Ferrari. Just don’t do it!
Bottom Line: If you can afford to get the best, this is it. We’ve never mixed on $20,000 monitors or anything of that sort, but it’s hard to believe how you would get much more clarity, detail, and balance than is provided by the Adam A7X. For us mere mortals, this is as good as listening to music gets.
Powered: Yes Woofer Size: 5.25” Frequency Range: 52Hz - 21kHz Total Power: 100W (Continuous), 160W (Peak)
Neck and neck with the Adam A7X is another set of monitors that blew us away, the Neumann KH 120 A. Okay, look - we won’t repeat ourselves by talking about how amazingly detailed the midrange sounds, and so forth. Everything good we said about the A7X applies with these monitors as well. These and the Adam speakers are truly in a class of their own.
Perhaps it’s not a completely apples-to-apples comparison since the woofer on these is 5.25” as opposed to the A7X 7” woofer. While the bass response on them is remarkably good, we might be more inclined to recommend a woofer for sub-bass needs with the Neumanns (the KH 810 subwoofer will serve you well if you can stomach the price).
The rear panel features four-way switches to adjust Bass, Low-Mids, Treble, and Output Level, as well as an Input Gain knob. The only input available is XLR.
Bottom Line: With a hefty $1500 budget for monitors, between these and the Adam A7X it’s a stalemate. Nearly everyone on our team had a hard time deciding, and if you look around the web at “Neumann KH120A vs. Adam A7X” discussions, it’s a pretty split decision. The A7X are perhaps slightly better suited for bass-heavy genres with their slightly larger low-frequency driver, but Neumann takes the cake with brand cachet with their legendary microphones. The bottom line is you can’t lose with the Neumann KH120A.
There’s a good chance that you arrived at this guide already knowing what a studio monitor is and does, but just in case you’re confused and/or need a refresher, here we go -
While the layperson might think of a “monitor” as a display you hook up to your computer, in the pro audio world a monitor is actually a speaker; it’s a special type of speaker, purposefully designed for the critical listening that is required during music production and mixing.
Essentially, the job of a studio monitor is to let you hear your source audio in its rawest, purest, most uncolored and transparent form. What exactly does uncolored and transparent mean? To grasp this concept, think about the two main groups of people buying speakers. Out of 100 people, 95 of them are not musicians (or at least don’t record music) - they simply listen to it. This group of people buys consumer speakers that artificially boost certain frequencies and use other processing tricks to make music sound better. This is desirable when watching movies, playing videogames, throwing a party, etc. Usually the bass and treble are boosted, which we typically perceive as making music sound better.
The other 5 people are the ones recording and producing the music that the other 95 are listening to. So, they need professional speakers that tell the truth - this means the frequency response has to be flat, i.e. no artificial boosting or cutting of any frequencies. The idea is that if you can get a mix sounding great on some pro studio monitors, when it’s played out on any other sound system, it will sound good.
It’s kind of a funny thing - when you buy and plug in your first pair of studio monitors, the music coming through them initially sounds worse! That’s because your ears aren’t used to hearing things so honestly. All of your other bookshelf speakers, car speakers, iPhone earbuds, etc. were sort of “lying” to you and making music sound artificially better. The cool thing about this is that once your ears acclimate and your studio monitors become the norm, you’ll hear music in a completely different (and better) way.
Buying good studio monitors is especially important for those who intend to mix. While you might be able to get away with tracking or laying down the foundation of your music using headphones, getting an accurate frequency response during the mixing process is key to achieving a good mix.
Many people say that it’s useless to buy quality studio monitors if your room isn’t treated. That’s true to a large extent, and the amount you should worry about it depends on the room where you intend to keep your monitors.
What exactly does it mean to treat your room? Truthfully this is a subject that deserves its own article, but in a nutshell -
When sound comes out of the speakers, some makes it to your ears directly, and some some bounces around the surfaces of the room, interfering with the original sound. An extreme example of this is if you’re in a giant cave and let out a yell, the sound waves would bounce around resulting in an echo. Thus, you can treat a room by absorbing the reflections (which is what those foam panels are for which you might have seen in professional studios).
However, absorb too much and the room sounds too “dead.” That’s where diffusers come in, which make sure no sound reflections get trapped and helps to scatter them for more favorable results.
Before you freak out about room treatment, don’t worry! Most manufacturers know most consumers don’t have treated rooms, so on the back panel of most monitors you’ll find controls that help you “tune” the monitor by adjusting the bass, mid, or high frequencies.
Mackie made an excellent video covering the basics, it’s worth the 6-minute watch:
What You Need to Know Before Buying Studio Monitors
Studio monitors are a very important purchase, and they can be pricey. Sure, you can spend as little as $99 for a pair of Mackie CR3 which feature 3” woofers, but you need to ask yourself, “Am I really making the best choice per my budget and needs?” To answer that, it’s important that you get educated on some terminology, and the various features and tradeoffs different monitors have. Take the time to read through the following considerations, and you’ll be much more informed and confident in shopping for the best studio monitors for you.
Passive vs. active: One of the biggest things to consider is if you want passive or active monitors. Passive - or unpowered - monitors are just speakers, and you have to buy a separate amplifier to power them. Active monitors - or powered - have an amp built into them, so you don’t need to buy anything else. Neither solution is objectively better, but active monitors provide the advantage of convenience and peace of mind. It’s already hard enough selecting a good pair of monitors without having to also think of what amplifier would go well with them. With an active monitor, you are assured that the manufacturer specifically matched up the internal amp with the speaker, leading to the best performance.
Speaker size: Often, a studio monitor’s model number is based on the size of the woofer, which is measured in inches (“speaker size” and “woofer size” are synonymous in the studio monitor world). The JBL 30*5* has a 5” woofer, the JBL 30*8* has an 8” woofer... you get the idea. The size of the woofer is very important as it not only dictates the physical dimensions of the entire monitor (the larger the woofer the bigger the whole speaker needs to be), but most importantly the bass response. Simply put, bigger woofers can produce better, deeper bass. A monitor with an 8” woofer will output significantly more bass than a 5”. If you produce music in bass-heavy genres, getting the biggest woofer you can would be something to consider. An increasingly popular option - and one we advocate - is to start off with 5” or 6” speakers, and later on add a subwoofer. Just to illustrate this scenario, you could opt for a pair of KRK ROKIT 5 monitors, then later you can add on the KRK 10s subwoofer for some serious bass.
Physical size and weight: We hinted at this when talking about the size of the woofer, but monitors with larger speakers are generally bigger and heavier. A studio monitor is meant to have a fixed spot in a home or project studio, so it’s not so much a matter of portability as it is the space you have available. Make sure to pay attention to the dimensions - imagine your shiny new monitors arriving at your doorstep, only to realize your studio desk is not big enough (the first time we set up a pair of KRK ROKIT 8s we were surprised at how much desk space they took up). A great option if you’re short on desk space is to place your monitors on speaker stands. Also, be aware that most studio monitors are not light. A single KRK ROKIT 6 speaker weighs nearly 20 lbs!
Watts: A studio monitor’s power rating is measured in watts - the higher the watts, the more volume and headroom you’ll have, which is important since without ample wattage, transients in your music could cause distortion or clipping. All of the studio monitors we recommend have ample wattage per their speaker size - at the very least enough for home studio use. We suggest you worry about speaker size above all - but watts is still a good spec to be aware of.
Frequency response: The average human hearing range spans from 20Hz-20kHz. Monitors will specify their frequency range, which can look something like 35Hz-35kHz or 37Hz-24kHz (just to give a couple of random examples). A low end of 35Hz means that bass frequencies below 35Hz will not be handled by that specific monitor speaker. Most importantly, their sound signature needs to be flat - after all, that’s what makes a studio monitor a studio monitor. This is where you have to be careful of marketing speak, as they will all claim to be flat and transparent, but the real story might look a little different.
Budget: Ideally, studio monitors are something you don’t want to skimp on. It’s arguably better to not get cheap monitors that don’t do their job well just for the sake of having monitors; You get what you pay for. Also keep in mind you need to buy a pair, and they are often sold separately, which can be a little confusing. Around $100 for each speaker (so $200 total) is where you’ll start finding some very reputable and solid options. It’s also worth into looking if retailers offer a discount for buying a pair, as opposed to 2 individual speakers separately.
Michael bought his first guitar, a Fender California Series Stratocaster in Candy Apple Red, in 1998. He likes rock of all types, from classic to punk to metal. Michael co-founded Equipboard to satisfy his curiosity around what gear his guitar heroes use. Read more