For Home Recording, Should I Use Studio Monitors Or Desktop Speakers?
Using your studio headphones for listening as you are recording, are perfect for picking up all the fine detail and imperfections. However, you need a set of quality speakers that will provide you accurate feedback as to what your recording will sound like filling a room. But what type of speaker should you choose?
Many artists and home recording professionals are faced with the same dilemma. You are starting out from scratch, and don't have your home recording studio build up yet and only your computer at your disposal.
You now have to choose between high-quality desktop speakers or dedicated professional studio monitors . In order to make an informed decision, it is important to first understand what the differences between the two are.
Difference Between Studio Monitors And Desktop Speakers
On the surface they may look the same and are in essence both speakers, but actually differ in a variety of ways:
One detail that often gets overlooked, is the different types of input ports your speakers can accept. Even though they may look very similar, studio monitors and desktop speakers serve very different purposes, and this is already evident when you take a closer look at the way you can connect to them.
Since almost all your computers have headphone and USB ports (that the majority of PC desktop speakers use), it is easy to connect almost any desktop PC speaker.
The majority of studio monitors however, use more professional RCA or ¼” TRS connectors. This not a problem if you already have an audio interface as part of your home recording system, as most modern interfaces have output ports build-in that will enable you to connect directly to studio monitors.
If you are just starting out though, chances are good that you only have the ports of your laptop or desktop computer available.
Most computers don't come standard with these professional ports studio monitors require. This problem can be overcome by a converter cable that uses the 3.5 headphone output from the computer and splits into left and right RCA inputs for the studio monitors.
It will definitely solve the problem but as with most converter interfaces, there is always the potential loss of quality in the sound signal. The additional cost and availability of purchasing conversion components should also be taken into consideration.
The biggest difference is the sound these two type of speakers produce.
Good quality desktop and home entertainment speakers are designed to produce a rich and crystal clear sound. They are designed to make any recording sound as good as possible, masking/hiding many flaws in a recorded soundtrack.
Studio monitors are designed to produce an accurate representation of the recorded sound. It may sound more flat and not as rich as desktop PC speakers, but small defects in recordings will easily be picked up, which is the the purpose of these speakers.
It can be best explained as follows: Desktop speakers aim to hide and mask faults in recordings, while studio monitors aim to expose them.
Traditionally, most studio monitors were passive which means they have no build-in power and therefore require an external amplifier to boost the signal and provide power to the speakers. Active studio monitors are more readily available nowadays, but they tend to be quite expensive.
The majority of good PC desktop speakers come standard with build-in amplifiers, as the signal coming from computers are in general too weak to produce high quality sound and volume. As a result no external component or power source is necessary for the speaker to operate properly.
Important Note: An increasing amount of modern desktop speakers and studio monitors are either active (powered) or passive (unpowered). As it is hard to visually tell the difference when glancing at them briefly, make sure of which one you choose. (When choosing a passive studio monitor/speaker and you don't have an audio interface or other form of amplification, you will end up spending a lot more than you bargained for to make them function properly.)
Although both PC desktop speakers and studio monitors are available in a variety of sizes, studio monitors are in general significantly larger than the desktop PC speakers. If you are working with restricted space, this may be something you want to consider.
Just keep in mind that the smaller size of PC desktop speakers may have a negative influence on audio quality. This will be especially evident in the accurate delivery of lower end (bass) frequencies.
PC desktop speakers are designed to provide the best sound quality in most environments. Professional studio monitors, however, need the specific surroundings of a purposely build professional studio to perform optimally.
I've heard of an instance where studio monitors were used in a standard "unprepared" office. The recording kept sounding flawed and distorted even though top-end equipment was used, from recording to output.
Numerous changes were made, from mixer and output settings, to changes in the DAW software and even cabling. As a last resort the recording with the studio monitors were taken to a colleague's professionally set-up recording studio. With similar equipment, the same recording and the same studio monitors, the recording sounded absolutely perfect. Yes, some studio monitors are that sensitive to its immediate surrounding, and a studio that is not properly setup can effect both the quality of recording and playback.
Now that you have a better understanding of what the major differences between studio monitors and desktop computer speakers are, many of you are already able to make up your minds as to which of the two will suit you best.
If you are still unsure, I created two scenarios, each of which should help you determine what type of speaker will be best suited for your needs.
Why You Will Choose Studio Monitors
You are a serious full-time recording artist. You do not have the time or budget to make constant use of a professional recording studio, but are willing to invest the necessary money on a professional home setup.
You also have a dedicated room available to accommodate all the equipment needed, as well as making permanent changes to the room to make it "recording friendly" (Install the necessary fixtures for acoustics, reverberation (echo) and other sound-deadening materials.)
Why You Will Choose Desktop PC Speakers
You may not be a professional recording artist (yet), but want the best possible sound and feedback for your recordings, and realize you need more than a set of headphones to get a good indication of what your audio will sound like filling a room from a set of speakers,
You have a restricted budget and not an abundance of space available, where the compact dimensions of desktop speakers and their relative affordability (compared to high-end studio monitors) will make it an appropriate consideration.
(If you are a serious artist however, or sure you are going to expand your home recording studio in the near future, it may be worth your while to consider holding out for a set of studio monitors.)
Can A Desktop Speaker Be Used For A Studio Monitor And Vice Versa?
Simply put, can desktop studio speaker be used to monitor your audio recordings, and can studio monitors be used for casual listening? The short answer is a provisional yes and yes.
But there are conditions though. Yes, desktop speakers can be used to monitor your recording, but not your normal budget home theater speakers. To get the quality and detail from the sound studio monitors provide, you must be willing to invest in a pair of real hi-fi (high fidelity) desktop speakers.
The purpose of true high-end desktop speakers is not just to provide you with exceptional sound quality, but to reproduce the recorded sound as accurately as possible. And it's this last function of these speakers that makes them suitable for studio monitoring.
The drawback of this approach however, is that you must be willing pay a premium for this exercise to work. A really good pair of high quality desktop speakers may set you back at least a few hundred dollars or more. Not exactly ideal for the home user just starting out on a shoestring budget.
In principle, studio monitors can also sound good and be used for "easy listening", but are more restrictive in terms of their environment. You simply cannot put a pair of studio monitors anywhere in a lounge or bedroom and get the same high quality sound desktop/bookshelf speakers will be able to provide.
As discussed earlier in this article, a dedicated pair of studio monitors require a room that is acoustically set up correctly to bring the best out of these specialized speakers. This is normally only achieved in a studio with acoustic treatment already applied correctly and all objects placed in position for optimal sound reproduction.
Off course nothing is stopping you from placing your studio monitors anywhere you want, and you will still be able to hear the sound as with any other speaker. The sound reproduced may even be more than good enough for you.
Just keep in mind that in order for studio monitors to provide the best possible quality and accurate sound, it must be placed in a specially prepared environment.
Armed with this extra information you should be much better equipped to make an informed decision on whether to go for a set of studio monitors or desktop computer speakers.
Just remember, the fundamental difference between desktop speakers and studio monitors is not necessarily the quality of sound they produce, but the way in which the sound is produced by each one.
If you are looking for the best possible feedback of what your recording really sounds like and you have the resources available (budget and space), studio monitors will always be you best option for your home studio.
If you are just starting out however, have a very limited budget and space (and you just need a general indication of what your audio will sound like over a pair of speakers), you will be well served by a pair of good quality PC desktop speakers.
I hope this make the decision making process easier for you when it comes to deciding between the two.
Until next time, feel free to leave me any comments or suggestions you may have. Remember to join my Mailing List to be informed whenever a new article is released, and share new developments and helpful hints & tips.