There are many pieces involved in getting a more accurate representation of a mix through the air and into your ears. The shape of the room you're in, the converters in your audio interface, the reflective surfaces around you, even the electrical current running through your wall—you would be surprised at what has a hand in altering the sound from its original state. Undoubtedly, one of the most important pieces of that equation is the studio monitor, responsible for actually getting the air moving.
Choosing the right monitor for the job can involve many factors and can be an intimidating process at best. If you don't have the luxury of being able to visit a shop that knows how to setup a proper side-by-side listening comparison, trying to make sense of reviews and such can be intimidating for many producers. To make things simpler, we took a look at what's out there currently and hand-picked a list of what we think is the best pairs of affordable studio monitors. All of these can be bagged for under 500 euros, proving that it doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg to address one of the most important parts of your studio.
We start off with the most affordable of our choices, a compact monitor from Yamaha called the HS50M. If that name sounds somewhat familiar, there is a good reason: the HS series of monitors is modeled after the legendary Yamaha NS10 that was released in 1978 and went on to achieve cult status as a brutally honest studio monitor that was small enough to carry from studio to studio. Sadly, the NS10 was discontinued in 2001 and, as it is with all discontinued legends, now demands ungainly prices on the secondhand market. Thankfully, it didn't take long for Yamaha to come up with a successor, with the HS series of monitors released in 2006. The HS50M takes the NS10 design and modernizes it a bit with slightly radiused edges, but otherwise visually and functionally they are very much the same monitor.
The rear of the HS50M shows off a pretty impressive amount of control for a budget monitor. There are inputs for XLR and ¼" TRS below a level knob and below that are four slide switches that allow you to tailor the signal of the monitors to the room you happen to be in. These include low-cut (at 80 or 100 Hz), mid EQ (+/- 2dB at 2kHz), and high trim (+/- 2dB above 2kHz). If you normally place your monitors near the wall or corner of your room, there is also a switch called "room control" that allows you to reduce the signal below 500 Hz to compensate for the bass exaggeration that can be caused by this kind of placement within a room. This amount of control is rather unheard of for monitors at this price range, so if you're looking for an unflattering but pro-level monitor for small rooms, check these out.
Sticking to the good value category, next up is the Reveal 601a by the long-running UK firm Tannoy. The "a" in the 601a name corresponds to the fact that these, along with all of the other picks to follow, are active monitors, meaning they provide their own internal amplification. There are positives and negatives to active monitors, but their simplicity and convenience—plus the fact that the majority of manufacturers are shelving their passive designs—lead us to concentrate on active options only.
The Reveal 601a offers a 6.5" bass/mid driver and a 300mm soft-dome tweeter. Generally, speakers with larger woofers can produce lower frequencies than those with smaller woofers, but a 6.5" is pretty common among near-field monitors like these, meant to be placed in close proximity to the listener in small to medium studios. Indeed the Reveal 601a is firmly in that category as its 90 watts of amplifier power and smaller size will output a maximum SPL of 111dB at one meter, which is great for bedroom studios but probably underpowered in a larger open-plan room.
The usual set of inputs is available on the backside of the 601a, with XLR balanced and ¼" TS unbalanced inputs both represented. Unlike most of the other options here, there is no RCA input so a set of adapter cables would be required for some users. In practice, the Reveal monitors are generally known to be clear but with a comfortably smooth top-end allowing for long mix sessions without worrying about ear fatigue.
Next up is a redesigned version of Mackie's MR-series studio monitors, the newer, more affordable alternative to the very popular HR624 and HR824 models. The MR series was introduced only four years ago to high praise from many reviewers, and now they have been updated with an all-new set of drivers. It is reported that Mackie worked with the loudspeaker experts at EAW on the redesign and the result sounds like something out of a science fiction novel. The tweeter uses a neodymium magnet to minimize distortion and is ferro-fluid cooled to protect it from overheating.
The MR5MK2 outperforms the Tannoys in many categories, in many cases doing more with less. The low-end response reported is 10 Hz lower at 50 Hz—and despite using five less watts of power it can output six more dB, for a maximum of 116 dB at one meter. The rear of the cabinet shows a handful of other options as well, with RCA unbalanced as well as XLR and ¼" balanced inputs. There are two switches that allow you to tailor the output slightly, either boosting or cutting high frequencies (by -2 dB or 2 dB) or boosting the low bass (by 2dB or 4 dB). These little adjustments can go a long way in getting things sounding right.
If you're looking for a do-it-all set of speakers that can perform well as a both a monitoring system and an all-around multimedia system, then you should check out the eXo2 system from Blue Sky. This New York based company has a history of spanning the gap between the worlds of home studio and multimedia, and the eXo2 is the updated version of their original eXo "Complete System." This is their term for a 2.1 system that includes two satellites, a subwoofer and a control hub that provides the inputs and means to control the sound.
In the case of the eXo2, the inputs are plentiful: the rear sports a pair of XLR/TRS combo jack inputs and a pair of RCA unbalanced inputs, and on the front you'll find a very handy 1/8" input to plug in an iPod or MP3 player. What's really great is that all of these inputs can be used simultaneously. The front of the control hub also has a headphone jack that when plugged in automatically mutes the monitoring system and switches the main volume knob to act as the headphone volume knob, which could be very useful when wanting to do a quick comparison of the mix on a set of phones.
So how does the eXo 2 perform? You're not going to want to push it very hard, but for smaller rooms it performs surprisingly well as a studio monitoring system. The subwoofer allows for the system to produce lower frequencies very well, down to a reported 20 Hz typical room response—which is much better than the previous two options. So although you might not achieve the accuracy yielded by the other options, you will likely have a better idea of what's going on in the sub-bass of your mix with the eXo2—and movies and games will sound great on it as well.
At a bit of a step up from the previous options you'll find the JBL LSR 2325P, the smallest of JBL's new 2300 series of studio monitors. The P here means powered, which means essentially the same as the "a" for active did on the Tannoy monitors. The 2300 series is a stripped down version of the high-end 4300 series that preceded it; to reduce the price, the room-correction functions and front panel meters were done away with.
Despite this simplified design they are still more expensive than the Tannoy or Mackie options, but with the increased price you get a bit more efficiency. Using 90W (55 for the woofer and 35 for the tweeter) these speakers can output a max of 118 dB. The bass driver is a 5" woofer, same as the Mackie, but the JBL specifications state that the frequency range can go down lower—all the way to a reported 43Hz.
The LSR monitors can also be of benefit if you happen to be in a room that is difficult to mix in with other monitors, because of what JBL calls Linear Spatial Reference (hence the LSR in the name). Reportedly, the engineers take 72 different audio measurements at various angles around the speaker, and then use the results of those measurements to inform the design of the monitor. In practice, this means if you have a room where wall and ceiling reflections would cause issues, the LSRs will have a bit more accurate playback than other options.
If you've been in the market for studio monitors over the past decade, there's a very good chance you're familiar with the KRK "Rokit Powered" line of monitors, with the signature yellow woofer that shines prominently from the center of their dark enclosures. The original lineup was known for its powerful sound and low prices, and as a result won over many electronic music producers. The G2 is a redesigned generation that continues along those same lines with some adjustments, many of which are immediately noticeable.
Where the original was more or less boxy with rounded corners, the G2 range has a front panel with a much more rounded profile. This is KRK's new design that they claim provide the new line of Rokit monitors a wider sweet spot (i.e. the area in which you need to sit in order to get the best sound). The science behind this is related to the way that rectangular monitor cabinets reflect the sound at different time intervals, distorting the sound as you get away from the point equidistant from the pair.
As the only pair of monitors on this list to feature an 8" woofer, the Rokit 8 may be the choice from this list best suited for electronic music producers (that woofer allows for a frequency response that goes down to 45 Hz). The wider sweet spot will help as well if you happen to have gear set up in your studio away from the normal sitting position.