Courtesy of Caleb Hsu
Home studio recording has increasingly become a popular way for artists to jump-start their projects, experiment with mixing techniques, and test their limits of capability.
The challenge is deciding what equipment to get and finding quality that fits within a musician's tight budget. When it comes to studio monitors, there are more options than answers, so we've sifted through multiple brands to select our top picks.
To get the best results with any studio monitors, you'll want to control as many outside variables as possible, like making sure your space is soundproof, your listening position is ideal, and you're using quality cables and drivers (if applicable).
1. Behringer Studio 50USB
While these are the most inexpensive monitors on our list, they're certainly nothing to scoff at. The 150-watt, bi-amplified speakers feature a unique USB connection, allowing for simple setup. At this price range, it's rare to see technology like Behringer's advanced waveguide engineering that creates a wide listening sweet spot. Although the pair features a USB input, two analog XLR and TRS connections can simultaneously be used. The bass response could be tighter, and we'd love more crisp highs (from 16 kHz up), but it's tough to find a better monitor pair for $150.
Price: $150 for the pair
2. JBL LSR305
You may not have considered JBL for entry-level studio monitors, but if you're on a budget, the LSR305 bi-amplified reference monitors are great options to get your feet wet mixing. They feature JBL's image control for accurate audio reproduction and have a surprisingly clean bass response for the long-throw 5" woofers. There is variable input sensitivity, but you only get balanced inputs. The output wattage does, however, leave something to be desired, capping at 41 watts per dual output. If you're not using a subwoofer, you'll want to check your mix on quality headphones, larger monitors, and in car stereo systems to ensure your bass is treated properly, because the LSR305's low end rolls off at around 45Hz.
Price: $200 for the pair
3. PreSonus Eris E8
These powerfully active (140 watts of Class AB amplification) studio monitors deliver super clear highs and support a tight low end. There's a line-level, unbalanced RCA input, and the traditional balanced TRS and XLR connections as well. We like the acoustic section's EQ and input gain, allowing you to fine-tune your listening space. There is additionally a low cutoff that rolls off frequencies below 80 or 100 Hz (at 12 dB/octave) if you're using a dedicated subwoofer. At this price range, it's difficult to find quality RF shielding that protects against audible artifacts, but Eris has this as well as overheat protection, current-output limiting, and subsonic protection. We love that there's plenty of headroom when working with these speakers, preventing distorting when mixing and saving you from ear fatigue.
Price: $320 for the pair
4. Yamaha HS5
Yamaha's notorious NS-10 studio monitors have made history and are still used today as industry standards. The problem is that finding a mint condition pair can be tough, and once you do, it'll usually be pricey (upwards of $900). The next best option is the HS8 monitors, which have an excellent crisp response. Unfortunately, a pair of these can set you back $700. If you can gig more and put some money aside, these are a fantastic option for starter monitors that will take you far. If money is tight, you might want to try starting with a pair of Yamaha's HS5 speakers. While these only have 70W of output, you're still getting signature engineering and precision, healthy crossover frequencies, and a fair frequency response range. Keep in mind that the low end rolls off at about 50 Hz, so you’ll want to take extra measures to ensure your bass tones are balanced. They're just over 20 pounds combined and have under a foot in dimensions, so for musicians with minimal space, these are a great starter option.
Price: $400 for the pair
5. M-Audio BX8 Carbon
These 130-watt active monitors are massive sounding and boast an incredibly flat frequency response. They have a woven Kevlar woofer that produces amazing bass response except for extremely low tones (below 38 Hz). It’s versatile with both balanced and unbalanced TRS inputs, and a back control to improve your room's acoustic accuracy. We love the front LED lights that illuminate brightest when you're in the ideal listening position. The only complaint we have is that the monitors have a combined weight of over 52 pounds. You'll want to make sure you have a quality surge protector, as some users have noted a low buzz from grounding issues.
A close contender at the same price is KRK’s Rokit 8 monitors. While they're not totally transparent, they are a prime choice for DJs and EDM musicians. For $100 less, the BX6 version gives you the same output power, with a higher low-end roll off (around 45 Hz). If it’s within your budget, we highly recommend M-Audio’s tri-amped M3-8 monitors ($699). They have more output wattage (220W), are equipped three-band EQs to compensate for room issues, and a gorgeous real wood veneer baffle.
Price: $500 for the pair
6. The Avantone MixCubes
If you already have decent monitors, we urge you to look into a second reference source. Avantone Audio's passive MixCubes replaced Auratone’s industry standard sound cubes, providing "terrible-sounding" monitoring necessary to hear your mixes on real-world systems like Apple earbuds, laptop speakers, televisions, and car stereos. They have a frequency response from 90 Hz to 17 kHz, making them bass challenged, mirroring the issues consumer products exhibit, allowing you to get a clear picture of what your material sounds like to the average listener.
Price: $269 for the pair
Good luck with your search, and we hope this list helps guide your buying decisions. Let us know if there were any standout budget monitors you came across in 2015.
Caleb Hsu is an independent vocal producer and freelance recording engineer based in Los Angeles. As a classically trained pianist and composer, he enjoys writing music technology features that combine his psychology background with current industry trends.