12 of the best affordable monitor speakers
1st May 2014 | 15:00
You might think that you don’t need another set of speakers. The chances are that you’ve already got a pair hooked up to your computer - in the MP3 age, this might even be your main hi-fi setup - or maybe you do all of your listening on headphones.
When it comes to making music, though, a decent pair of monitor speakers is, if not essential, a very wise investment. To understand why, you need to understand how they work.
While your hi-fi or computer speakers are specifically designed to ‘flatter’ your music so that it sounds good, they typically do this in a way that could be considered unnatural. This isn’t a problem if you’re listening to someone else’s album, but when your goal is to create balanced mixes that will sound good on lots of different systems, it can be an issue.
Step forward the monitor speaker, which is designed to portray your music as it actually is rather than how your ears might want it to sound. We’re not going to delve too far into why these speakers are technically different, but the bottom line is that, if you mix your music through built-for- purpose monitors, you’ve got a far better chance of making it sound good.
Headphones are another issue altogether. Trying to create a balanced stereo mix while you’re monitoring through cans is notoriously difficult because, rather than hearing some of each channel (left and right) in each ear, it’s an ‘either/or scenario’. We wouldn’t dream of telling you not to use headphones at all - in many cases, such as when you’re making music on the move or at a time when making noise is a no-no, they’re essential - but it’s certainly a bad idea to rely on them exclusively.
It would be easy to generalise and say that the more you pay for your monitors, the ‘better’ they’ll sound. This is true up to a point, but speaker preference is ultimately a very personal thing so, if at all possible, we’d advise you to try and audition a few sets before you make a decision.
Based on the reviews on MusicRadar (and in ascending price order), here are some of the best affordable monitors currently available.
NEXT: M-Audio BX5 D2
M-Audio BX5 D2
Apparently, the original BX5 was the best-selling monitor speaker in the United States in both 2009 and 2010. This revised version picks up where its predecessor left off: these are compact, affordable monitors that definitely punch a good deal above their weight.
The BX5 D2s have a slightly subdued appearance, but they’re certainly not ugly. Connections and volume controls are round the back, so you might want to ‘set and forget’ the levels to save rooting around there later.
In use, the BX5 D2 monitors are impressively punchy and will do the job perfectly well if you’re making pop or dance music. In fact, they’re an ideal first set of monitors, though if you’re looking for something with more bass, you might want to check out the larger BX8 D2s.
Fluid Audio F5
These compact powered monitors feel light but solid. The rear panel sports a finned amplifier with power inlet/switch below and line inputs above (XLR, TRS and RCA). The rigid plastic front baffle centre houses the silk dome tweeter (in waveguide), coated paper composite woofer, volume trim fader and slot-shaped bass reflex port.
Without a doubt, the F5s deliver performance beyond their price point. Good transient response, a smooth mid to HF range and some punchy power make them good candidates if you have a small budget.
The slightly bulbous low-end isn't marred by any overt resonant peaks, but is something you'll have to get used to. Ultimately, though, the F5s give you a lot of speaker for your money.
Behringer Truth B1031A
Behringer is a company that’s built its reputation on producing usable products at bargain prices, and the B1031As are a perfect example of this philosophy. They don’t look or sound cheap, but the price is very attractive indeed.
The all-important bass sounds tight and doesn’t distort, while the top end of the mix is nicely detailed without being too sharp. There monitors provide plenty of detail in the midrange, too - it’s not difficult to pick out the different instruments in your mix.
The B1031As have a nice wide sweet spot, meaning that you don’t need to worry about positioning yourself too precisely in front of them. They’re comfortable to listen to for long periods, too - these are speakers that you’ll be happy to live with and come at a great price.
The F5 and F7 use 5- and 7-inch woofers respectively. These are a new design combining glass fibre and a paper backing. The tweeters, meanwhile, use Adam's X-ART design.
Both models include the same rear panel controls, which are two +/- 6dB shelving EQs at 300Hz and 5kHz and a volume control (-inf to +6dB). There's also an 80Hz high-pass filter designed primarily for using with the optional F-Sub. Inputs are via either a phono or combination jack/XLR.
Fire up these monitors and they immediately sound just as you would expect: open in the top end with plenty of upper-mid detail; solid in the low mid and mid range and reasonably well balanced at the bottom.
The F7 sounds more expansive and engrossing, while the F5 is a bit more precise, particularly in the mid range. At the bottom, the F7 extension is much better.
On balance we prefer the F7s, mostly because the scale of the delivery is bigger and they sound more capable at high levels. That said, the F5 would be great for smaller rooms.
Equator Audio Research D5
Compact enough not to dominate your studio space, at first glance the D5s have the look of a two-way monitor until you realise that you're actually getting a tuned front port for bass that sits under the main driver assembly.
XLR and 1/4-inch TRS jack connections are on the rear panel, and there's a rear-panel three-way switch to optimise the monitors with different degrees of low-end roll-off for different room locations.
The D5s provide an impressively full sound for such a small box. The bass end is well-represented, there’s clarity in the mid-range, and the sound is well defined across the rest of the spectrum, too.
In fact, the D5s deliver plenty of definition to let you hear exactly what you need to hear.
Adam Audio A3X
Adam’s pricier monitors have frequently won praise, so the prospect of getting some of that high-performance quality for a fraction of the cost is certainly appealing. With the Audio A3Xs, the signs are good from the off: they look great and certainly don’t feel cheap in comparison to their more expensive siblings.
These speakers feature Adam’s X-ART tweeter, which translates into great performance at the top end. Detail is actually pretty good across your mix, whatever volume you happen to working at. These might be compact speakers, but they can still go pretty loud.
In fact, the A3Xs have a big sound generally, and one that we’re very happy to listen to. If you can afford them, they definitely offer bang for your buck.
The PM641 is a three-way monitor and has the mid-range driver and tweeter sitting next to each other on a horizontal axis above the woofer. This serves to minimise the physical height of the enclosure box.
The rear of each cabinet is dominated by a large finned heat-sink adjacent to the connection sockets, which are an XLR and a 1/4-inch TRS jack. There’s also a pair of three-way switches to change the response.
Performance-wise, the bass end is impressive and kick drums come fat and rounded. We'd describe the mids and top-end as ‘smooth’ - there's no hype or harshness here - and it feels like you could use these on long sessions without fatigue.
The PM641s might cost more than some of the budget options, but just shy of £400 is not a bad price to pay for a nicely practical three-way monitoring system.
KRK Rokit 8 G3
Designed and engineered in the USA but made in China, the Rokit 8 (RP8), the largest of the three two-way models in KRK's Rokit series is now in its newly-released third generation. This brings (among other things) an upgraded amplifier and tweeter and the inclusion of low frequency adjustment.
The RP8 offers XLR, 1/4-inch jack and RCA phono inputs. Another thoughtful touch is that the cabinets come fitted with a foam pad on their base to decouple them from whatever surface they are standing on.
This is a punchy monitor with a smooth top end, but most apparent is the solid and powerful bass performance. Once you've familiarised yourself with their sound, these are very capable speakers.
Tannoy Reveal 802
The 802 is the largest speaker in the Reveal range. It features an 8-inch bass driver and a 1-inch tweeter, with a rubberised padded base incorporated to provide acoustic isolation and a more balanced low end.
Around the back you can connect balanced (3-pin) or unbalanced (1/4-inch) input sources, while a rocker switch enables you to select a natural frequency response or additional offset options to increase or decrease treble balance. The final option supplied on the rear panel is a proximity switch, which lets you adjust bass response depending on the distance of your speakers to walls behind them.
The 802s deliver punchy bass response with an extremely rounded tone. Equally pleasing is that the top-end is more discreet than we were expecting. Stereo imaging is good, too, with a wide listening sweet spot and a pleasing depth of field.
These are fine speakers for the price. Regardless of the volume at which you like to mix, you can be sure that the nuances and subtleties you're putting into your music will be accurately represented.
PreSonus Eris E8
The E8 is quite a large nearfield monitor and is bi-amped. The 8-inch Kevlar low-frequency transducer is driven by a 75-watt class AB amp, while the 1.25-inch silk-dome high-frequency tweeter gets 65W of class AB amplification. Besides the woofer and tweeter there's a horizontal front port.
All connections and controls reside on the rear panel. You should have no trouble getting a signal into the E8 as there are XLR, balanced TRS jack and unbalanced RCA (phono) sockets. Besides the necessary input gain knob, the E8 has a range of controls for tweaking the sound.
In use, the clarity of these monitors is good, and the overall balance of frequencies is one that you can work with. The top end comes through prominently and clearly (revealing the detail), while the bottom end is tight and focussed.
We'd be happy to use the E8s to mix our tracks; they can sound pretty big considering their compact cabinet. This is a monitor that should fit tidily into most rooms and will let you hear the detail in your mixes.
Pioneer’s aim with the S-DJ05 was to create a speaker that bridged the gap between the music production and DJing worlds, giving you something that you can use both in your studio and for monitoring in the booth.
There are loads of input options round the back (you can toggle between these with buttons), plus selectable EQ. Furthermore, the S-DJ05s allow you to remote control your settings with a separate device so, with the appropriate hardware, you can toggle between inputs, turn the EQ on and off and adjust the levels of your speakers without even touching them.
The S-DJ05s have flexibility on their side, then, and fortunately they also sound pretty good - particularly when handling dance music.
EVE Audio SC204
Like all the monitors we’re looking at here the SC204s are active, meaning that they have their own amplification. These speakers are small, certainly – making them an attractive proposition if you haven’t got much space in your studio – but as soon as you get them out of the box you realise that they’re also substantial in all the most important ways.
All connections are located round the back, although handily, the volume knob is positioned on the front. An LED surround for this makes it easy to match the levels of the left and right speakers.
The SC204s reveal a lot of detail in your music and sound consistent at all volume levels; despite being small, they fill a room pretty well if you crank them up. And they pass the key test: music that’s mixed using them sounds good when it’s played through other sound systems. This makes them speakers you can rely on.