Studio monitors vary in price from £80 to £10,000. The difference in price depends on factors such as the studio monitor’s ability to reproduce sound accurately, reproduce a large frequency range, have a good transient response, and have an excellent quality design.
Studio monitors are an essential tool for anyone creating and producing audio.
The cost of studio monitors can vary massively across the spectrum and it is not always clear as to why some studio monitors are so much more expensive than others.
Two studio monitors may appear to have the same specification but a big difference in cost so what causes this?
Here are some reasons why studio monitors can be so expensive. These reasons are not always apparent from the datasheet.
The Honesty of Sound Reproduction
The main function of studio monitors (aka studio speakers) is to allow us to critically listen to sound and make a decision on what we are hearing.
This decision could be related to the recording quality, audio mix quality, or audio master quality.
Therefore you need to ensure that the sound coming out of your studio monitors is accurate and as close to the original recording as possible. We really don’t want studio monitors to be adding colorations or enhancing the audio at all.
Unlike hi-fi speakers, where often there is a bass or high-frequency boost to make the audio sound more exciting, we want the sound to be accurate and “flat”.
What do we mean by a “flat” sound or “flat” response?
A professional studio monitor should reproduce sound accurately and in an unbiased way across the full frequency range.
We can judge the performance of the speaker by looking at its frequency response measurement curve.
It can be very hard to find frequency response measurements for a cheaper speaker, but here is a measurement from a Genelec 8010A studio monitor.
This speaker typically costs around £200 per speaker.
Image via Genelec.com
For the purposes of this explanation, let’s look at the bottom curve marked “desktop” in the above image.
Overall the curve is relatively “flat” with a significant dip at 200Hz and another one around 5kHz.
Overall, I would judge this speaker as a good representation of sound, that may have some colorations around 5kHz, in the vocal region.
There is also a slight boost in frequency from 10kHz upwards, which might result in a slightly brighter sound.
Generally, however, this curve is relatively flat as there are no major peaks, dips, or deviations.
We call this a “flat” response as the curve is relatively flat.
With a flat frequency response, you can be confident that you are hearing the sound accurately and can make better sound design decisions.
Getting this “flat” studio monitor response is desirable and takes more engineering and development hours to design by manufacturers.
Therefore, generally, the flatter the frequency response the more expensive the studio monitor.
Now, there are many online debates about the frequency response of speakers. Personally, I have spent some time working on the development of loudspeaker applications and have had the opportunity to measure loudspeakers, look at the frequency response measurement curve and then listen to the speakers.
Sometimes, the measurement curves don’t tell the full story and a speaker that might measure “well” may sound better or worse than what the measured curve represents.
For the purposes of understanding why studio monitors are often much more expensive, let’s just highlight that the desired outcome is a “flat” frequency response, which means the speaker will reproduce the sound as accurately as possible to the original sound recording.
No speaker system can produce a perfectly flat response, but the more expensive studio monitors can get closer.
A Good Transient Response
In the simplest of terms, a speaker’s transient response refers to its ability to respond to the sound being put through it.
A speaker is a piston that responds to an input signal and moves air to create sound.
How quickly his piston reacts to the signal being feed to it will have an impact on how we perceive sound.
A good transient response is a speaker that is “tight” and follows the input signal closely. The speaker will not be “flabby” and will settle quickly when the sound stops.
In other words, we want the speaker to have great reaction times!
To achieve this, the speaker engineering team will have to carefully choose the material of the moving parts in the speaker and ensure that they choose a material that is soft enough to move but stiff enough to give a fast reaction time.
In addition, how these materials interact with each other will have to be considered.
Designing a speaker with a good transient response involves selecting appropriate materials and engineering design time – both of which cost money, as a result adding to the production costs.
A Wide Frequency Range
Humans can detect sounds in the 20Hz to 20kHz frequency range, however, reproducing sound below 30Hz is a bit of an engineering challenge.
The lower the frequency, the larger the speaker required.
When you start reproducing low frequencies you need physically larger speaker cones to move so much air. Larger cones mean more material, more packaging, and more handling costs.
When I was a Music Production student I remember being told that if I can get a studio monitor that can reproduce sound as low as 45Hz, that would be more than adequate.
I have lived my sound engineering career with this advice and it has served me well.
Some of the new Mackie HR824 monitors have a specification as low as 35kHz- 39kHz.
If you look at lower-end monitors, their ability to reproduce so much bass extension can be limited.
External Physical Design
Studio monitors with beautiful exterior design and quality external materials are often perceived as more expensive and can command a higher price tag.
Have you ever heard someone say “it looks expensive”?
I have a firm belief that if a speaker looks good, people will believe that it also sounds good and will pay the higher price tag.
I see this with electric guitars all the time. So many people will buy an electric guitar purely on looks and love it, without really considering the sound.
It is like the physical appearance gives the product a few extra brownie points.
If you are paying £1000 for a pair of studio monitors you want the external design to be elegant and the materials to “look expensive”
Many forums online say that studio monitor are typically more expensive due to the quality of internal components.
Yes, you may find better solder joints and build quality in the more expensive studio monitors but you will only find this if these upgrades truly improve the sound.
If a manufacturer can get away with using a basic cheap component, they will. As long as it does what it is designed for, manufacturers will not go out of their way to improve the quality of internal components if there is not a problem to fix.
All studio monitor manufacturers are in the business of making money and will not spend it if they do not have to.
Assuming that the internal components of a more expensive studio monitor are better by default is a false general assumption.
It is more beneficial to pay attention to the quality of the external components and materials you can see, including glue joints and general build finish.
The more expensive studio monitors will pay attention to these external details as they are out to impress.
Marketing & Branding
Many studio monitor designers have been in the industry for a long time and have a great reputation, as a result, they can demand a higher price as we trust them.
Brands such as Mackie, JBL, Genelec, Adam, and Focal to name a few, are trustworthy brands that know that their products will be carefully reviewed by major magazines and the industry at large.
These brands produce high-end studio monitors and can inflate the cost of their budget monitors as a result.
If I am given the choice between an unknown manufacturer and a similar spec speaker from a known brand such as Mackie, which is slightly more expensive, I would go with Mackie out of trust.
Therefore marketing and branding can influence the cost of studio monitors.