JBL LSR305 studio monitors

Can studio monitors be used as speakers

An investigation into monitors VS Hi-Fi speakers

People often wonder if studio monitors can be used as speakers or if studio monitors can be used as computer speakers. The simple answer is yes, the long answer is it depends. This article is written in a simple manner and aims to help you make the right decision.

We’ll begin by highlighting the hallmarks of studio monitors, then we’ll move on to do the same for regular hifi speakers, lastly we compare the two approaches and sum it up with a conclusion.

What are studio monitors

Anechoic chamber
An anechoic chamber is a hyper expensive room with no reflections or ambient noise. They are often used by big companies to measure loudspeakers during development.

Firstly, studio monitors are speakers and their general goal is to reproduce what has been recorded and mastered as close to the source as possible. They should not color the sound in any way shape or form, meaning their frequency response should be ruler flat (in an anechoic chamber) and distortion kept as low as possible.

Secondly, studio monitors are tools. They should be detailed enough to enable the mastering engineer to find any flaws so they can be corrected.

Thirdly, studio monitors are made from a utilitarian’s perspective. Look and feel is of less importance, the emphasis is on the speaker’s reproductive abilities and generally you’ll find that the more expensive the studio monitors the better power handling, less distortion and more SPL capacity they have (SPL means Sound Pressure Level, and is another [more correct] way of writing volume). In general studio monitors are not made with luxury materials and high cost finishes.

Fourth, the dispersion characteristics of a set of studio monitors vary by model; some are made to be great in near field whereas others are made to work further away from the listener. If you have any candidates, check out the user manual for any advice on speaker placement as that can be very indicative of where they will perform their best.

Finally, most studio monitors are active meaning they have a plate amplifier mounted at the rear of the speaker. This means that the amplifier and the speaker is designed for each other for maximum performance.

So to sum up; studio monitors should be ruler flat, have low distortion and have enough resolution to reveal any flaws in the source material so they can be corrected. Furthermore, they are often active so you don’t need an external amp.

What are audiophile HiFi speakers

Firstly, there is no generally accepted goal of Hi-Fi loudspeaker manufacturers to reproduce a flat response. Some strive for this while others don’t. It’s much more of a flavor thing where some speakers are great for rock with a peaky midbass punch and a tad forward highs to give air around the high hat, whereas others are more laid back and works better with jazz.

Secondly, the hifi manufacturers know that people buy with their eyes and that Wife Acceptance Factor (WAF) is of high importance because the interior decorator of the house has a veto in all decisions. Because of this the focus is often on looks and a big chunk of the manufacturing budget goes into the look of the speakers. Rare and expensive wood veneers or piano gloss are used to make them stand out and shine. «Pride of ownership» is a term you’ll see thrown around a lot in audiophile circles and it often relates to the look and feel of the product.

Thirdly, in most cases the regular speakers are passive designs meaning they do not employ a built in amplifier. This is probably because an important part of Hi-Fi as a hobby is to keep swapping out components left and right in hopes of finding the perfect synergy. Audiophiles are less interested in a turn key fully integrated and optimized system – they want to feel like they’ve taken an active role in building the system so they can boast their achievement amongst their audiophile friends.

Passive crossover network
Example of passive crossover network

Another thing about passive loudspeaker designs is the use of passive crossover networks to divide the frequencies and send the correct frequencies to the corresponding drivers, meaning bass goes to the subwoofer, midrange to the midrange driver and highs to the tweeter. This is an inefficient way of using amplifier power as it has to work with a lot of frequencies simultaneously. Not only that but as the temperature of the passive components in the network change, so do their values. Because of this the reproductive capabilities of the speaker will change with temperature of the passive components. In addition, the production tolerances of these components vary and components with tight tolerances are very expensive.

Fourth up, a lot of the smaller loudspeaker manufacturers employ their own philosophies. They can even be one man operations and their philosophies may have grown out over years doing DIY projects. These small operations lack the financial muscle to do proper engineering (like using an anechoic chamber during development) and their products are often a result of their subjective  preferences as individuals. For example, to keep distortion and resonances out of the system you want a rigid cabinet (or open baffle), but some manufacturers make their boxes play along like a fiddle to create a different flavor of sound.

Lastly, the hifi market (think audiophile) is much smaller than the professional market (think studio monitors or PA systems), and the distribution channels are very different. Studio equipment generally have lower markup than Hi-Fi equipment, because of the smaller market, smaller production runs and the organization of the distribution chain.

Hi-Fi speakers VS studio monitors

As we can see from this analysis the pure sound reproduction utility of studio monitors bests those of the HiFi loudspeakers if transparency is your goal. You get more bang for the buck in terms of sound quality with studio monitors, but at the same time you miss out on good looking audio furniture and the ability to tweak the sound to your preferences by mixing components. However, this all comes at a premium due to a much smaller market.

However, it’s important to note that there are companies that operate in both markets and there are companies with professional roots who have ventured into the audiophile market, often bringing in significant expertise and making some truly solid performers that also look good, so it’s not clear cut what to choose.

Also, it’s not like all studio monitors are ugly. While the definition of beauty is in the eyes of the beholder it’s hard not to find these studio monitors attractive.

JBL 4430 vintage studio monitors and Emotiva XPR-1 monoblocks

This is a setup of mine. These are a pair of JBL 4430 vintage studio monitors in American walnut. They are a two way construcion with a 15″ woofer and a 1″ compression driver and the dynamics are off the charts. Unfortunately these types of studio monitors are not common nowadays but they can be found in the second hand market.

Making the studio monitor less flat with EQ

Studio monitors might still be for you, even if you don’t want transparency and a flat frequency response. Nowadays using a digital equalizer has never been easier and with DSP you can boost and lower certain parts of the frequencies to get a result you will be subjectively satisfied with even when starting out with a flat response. In fact, using DSP is becoming more and more common amongst audiophiles as well, as DSP can help out with some room and driver related problems, but that’s outside the scope of this article.

Tip on studio monitors

Despite the cut throat competition within the professional market for studio monitors, the performance of monitors do vary a lot, so if you’ve already decided you want to go that route you better make sure to choose a pair that does the job well within your budget constraints.

My personal advice is that you check out the JBL LSR series as they have raised the bar for what you can have for very little money.

JBL LSR308 at the left and the much smaller LSR305 at the right. They are both awesome studio monitors.

They come in two versions, both of which I own (and love). The biggest is the JBL LSR308 with an 8″ woofer and the other one is the JBL LSR305 which has a 5″ woofer. They are both actively crossed over and have a plate amp at the rear where you can adjust the treble and bass balance +/-3dB, essentially making them less flat.

These studio monitors perform so well, giving you really clear and nice vocals and a wide sweetspot with a phenomenal soundstage. Basically the LSR308 goes a bit deeper and plays a tad louder, but they are both excellent choices if you want to substitute book shelf living room speakers and/or computer speakers with studio monitors that are backed by serious engineering.

Here is a short video of the excursion capabilities of the LSR305’s, they can definitely pound if they want. The video doesn’t do them justice though, because the number of frames per second of the camera is 25FPS so when the driver moves at and around 25 Hz, 50 Hz, … it looks like it’s slow, however, in reality they’re  fast, tight and loud!

You can check pricing, availability and user reviews for these studio monitors at Amazon US and Amazon UK, and as you can see these are an absolutely phenomenal choice. Notice that you’ll find far more reviews at Amazon US. Also note that the price is each, and you need two. You just can’t go wrong with these phenomenal studio monitors. There will be a fully featured review of both monitors on this site in the very near future.

Discussion on Can studio monitors be used as speakers

  1. L says:

    Hi, thanks for the nice review! How would I connect them to a computer? I have a O2+ODAC combo as well as a USB DAC with 3.5mm jack. Is something like this  http://amzn.to/1ETg8sl all that would be required beside a pair of the speakers? Thanks!

    • HeadphoneAddict HeadphoneAddict says:

      Hi, L

      Yes, you can use that cable to connect the JBL LSR305 or LSR308 studio monitors to your O2 with ODAC in one of several ways. This is another cable that does the same job using two 3pin XLR plugs instead of TS.

      1. If you have O2+ODAC connected through USB the analog input on your O2 will switch to being a analog output with constant gain, meaning you will have to control the volume of your speakers using your operating system’s volume control.
      2. You can also use the volume control on your studio monitors. On the LSR305 and 308’s the volume control is behind the speakers and not really practical.
      3. A third option would be to add a passive attenuator between O2’s constant gain output and that XLR cable I suggested above. That would attenuate the signal so you could lower the volume on the constant gain output as well. Emotiva’s XLR based Control Freak is such a passive attenuator. Make sure you get the XLR version if you go that route.
      4. If you connect that cable to the headphone out of your O2 you will be able to control the volume with the O2 volume potentiometer, but you obviously have to take the cable in and out all the time to switch between speakers and headphones.
      5. You can also add a Y splitter to your O2’s headphone out to control both speakers and headphones’ volume, but this isn’t safe as you could turn the gain up so much on your speakers that you damage your headphones if you leave them connected.

      I think the best option is to go for a breakout cable with XLR’s and Emotiva’s Control Freak (the XLR version). That way you would have the ability to have both the studio monitors and headphones connected simultaneously and set the volume independently.

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