Speakers are found in a wide variety of devices and appliances. From the tinny single speaker in your phone, the decent yet small speakers in flat-screen TVs or soundbars, the multi-speaker setup in cars, to the extravagant assemblies in an audiophile’s man cave or concert hall. The basic distinction is whether speakers are geared towards sound and music reproduction or are involved in the production process and monitoring of the music we like to listen to. In this sense, there are hi-fi speakers and monitoring speakers, often referred to in the music business simply as monitors.
Speakers can be further divided into passive or active. Passive speakers have only the ‘drivers’ or the individual elements in a speaker producing the different types of sound. The larger drivers are intended for low frequencies, or the bass and smaller speakers called tweeters cater for high-pitched sounds. Some hi-fi speakers can also have a mid-range driver taking care of everything in between. This is seen in a three-driver setup, and is the basic type of speaker for passionate audiophiles because of the separation of sounds. What is missing in passive speakers is the power source. To get any sound out of passive speakers, separate amplifiers are needed. For instance, a simple hi-fi setup includes an amplifier, which amplifies signals from a music source, say a CD player or a phono turntable, to get the sound that you hear from speakers.
This is the combination seen in the simplest hi-fi systems. In-home cinema, a single amplifier or AV receiver can power several speakers at the same time to get the surround sound and effects we hear in cinemas. Active speakers, on the other hand, have their own power source. This can be a single amplifier powering all the drivers, or individual amplifiers for each driver. The latter is preferred for better sound separation, as each amplifier will be set up to the correct power needs of the individual driver.
Advantages of Passive Speakers
Passive speakers are the go-to choice for the majority of audiophiles. All the separate components, including the speakers, can be hand-picked to get the particular sound you want. The popularity of passive speakers is the soundstage in a particular setting and the choices for upgrading and swapping out components in the future. You can get more powerful amps, or change out the speakers at any time. Active speakers however are stuck with the amplifiers they come with. This tends to make them more of a niche product.
Unlike passive speakers, active speakers have their own power source. This can be seen in small portable speakers, the type you use to get better sound from your phone or laptop. One area where active speakers are preferred is in music production. Since amplifiers can be fine-tuned for each driver in the speaker, you get the most accurate sound production. And unlike passive speakers, where we can adjust the different qualities of sound to what we like most, active speakers go for precision and transparency. The best active studio monitors are those that have the least ‘colouration’ or distortion in the sound. Whether you’re recording, editing, mixing, or mastering your next hit, an active speaker monitor will reproduce the music as it is, good or bad.
Active monitors with built-in amplifiers are the choice for most music professionals. For smaller studios, so-called near-field monitors are preferred as they are placed at close hearing distances from the mixing table, to avoid any interference from surrounding objects, particularly furniture and walls. In areas or rooms with less-than-ideal sound treatment, additional sounds are brought to a minimum. Near-field active monitors are ideal for home studios, and pairs are decently priced.
Far-field monitors are placed at further distances, often with accompanying subwoofers built into the control rooms of high-end professional studios. They are used in high-volume playback and monitoring mid to low-end frequency reproduction. If you have a little more to spend, then a pair of high-output three-way monitors from the Genelec pro audio 8000 series produce the most accurate, neutral sound. For more information on one of the most widely use speakers in sound monitoring, check out this video.
What to look for in Active Studio Monitors:
- Power output – Look for the highest wattage your money can buy. Monitors with high power can provide better detail and a wider dynamic range, meaning they equally handle both high and low frequencies at higher volumes without any distortion. Cheaper speakers can struggle here, especially in the bass. For smaller home studios, 50 watts or more is a good starting point. Also, consider how power is distributed. Does the monitor have one amp for all drivers or individual amps for each driver? You get more definition and a clearer sound in bi-amp and tri-amp monitors.
- Features – Even the cheapest monitors have some kind of equaliser to fine-tune frequencies to best suit the room or studio. Mid-level speakers also have proprietary digital signal processing and software to get the most transparency. High-end speakers will have features to compensate for irregular room acoustics.
- Design and size – For better bass response, look for ported speakers. These use room fixtures like walls and ceilings, together with inbuilt sound processing to define low-end frequencies. Most monitors are smaller than hi-fi speakers of comparable output, so will easily fit in smaller studios. Consider how these are setup, and connected to the interface.
There are far fewer brands specialising in studio than passive hi-fi speakers. Genelec pro audio is one the most popular studio brands, and their monitors are found everywhere, from simple garages to the most sophisticated high-end professional studios. High-end producers of passive speakers like Dynaudio, JBL, Focal and PMC also make quality studio monitors in different price ranges.