We brought together Sapphire Slows, Wata Igarashi, Gonno, Sauce81 and Taiji Okuda to test some of the best monitors for electronic music production under €800.
If you were choosing a pair back in the '80s or '90s, you might have gone with Yamaha's NS-10M, a go-to model for many professionals. But as DAWs gained popularity and bedroom producers proliferated, we now have a wide array of powered monitors with built-in amplifiers to choose from, each with its own character. While it's important for monitors to deliver accurate, uncoloured audio, brands have different takes on what this means. And with so many models in different price ranges, it can be daunting to choose the right pair for your setup.
For this feature, we decided to look at four entry-level models that work well in electronic music production. They're all priced under ¥100,000 (a little below €800). Given that the price is within reach of amateur producers, there are many popular models in this price bracket. But the price tag also ensures quality.
We asked four producers—Gonno, Sauce81, Sapphire Slows and Wata Igarashi—to test these speakers alongside the recording engineer Taiji Okuda. Gonno is a producer and DJ who's known for his melodic take on house and techno. Sauce81 and Sapphire Slows are both producers and performers who incorporate their own vocals in their work; the former has a knack for funky dance grooves and the latter writes mystical experimental compositions. Wata Igarashi is a techno artist whose intricately detailed tracks have been picked up by labels like The Bunker New York and Midgar. Okuda, meanwhile, is a veteran engineer with a deep understanding of sound equipment and electronic music. He also works at Studio MSR, the studio at which the listening session took place. To test how each speaker performs in an electronic music context, each producer brought in reference tracks, fiddled with drum machines and EQs, and played some records.
When it comes to powered monitors, Finland's Genelec is an industry veteran. Their products are common in commercial and bedroom studios alike. The smallest model in the classic 8000 series, the 8010A, is a tiny but capable unit that comes in a cast-aluminium casing with a three-inch woofer and a 3/4-inch metal dome tweeter. The rear panel switches for customising room response settings allow you to fine tune the monitors to suit your studio environment.
After an initial sound test, the four producers were impressed with the clarity of sound coming from such tiny units, mentioning that they would be perfect to take on the road. With each speaker weighing only 1.5kg, it was the lightest monitor we tested. The small size, however, was not an indication of its capabilities. "I use Genelec's 8040 BPM at home," said Gonno. "But this model seems to produce just as good a sound." After playing some of his own tracks as well as testing some sounds on a drum machine, Igarashi told me, "I love how the middle and high frequency ranges are crisp and don't mesh together. The depth in the reverb is also very clear and doesn't get muddy. But for making techno tracks, I feel like the lower frequencies are kind of weak, and I'd probably also use headphones alongside it."
Sauce81 and others agreed that it lacked strength in the low end, although Sapphire Slows pointed out that "this allows you to really home in on the parts that you hear when you listen to music on a home stereo system or earphones." Gonno added that, "When dance music producers create music on monitors that have a lot of low frequencies, they tend to focus too much on the low end. With these speakers, you really notice the mid-range, which would allow you to approach sound design in a different way, which I think is interesting."
Okuda offered an engineer's perspective. "When you're picking out speakers, it's important to figure out where its strength lies. When I mix, I start by working on big speakers, then move on to smaller speakers to check and make adjustments. The 8010A is a good model to make judgements on the overall impression of the sound and to tweak the attack in the mid and high ranges. It's a classic Genelec sound with characteristic sharpness, and they sound good at low volumes, too."
SPL / 96 dB
Output / LF: 25 W, HF: 25 W
Frequency Range / 74 Hz - 20 kHz（± 2.5 dB）
Speaker / 76 mm woofer, 19 mm tweeter
Dimensions / H: 195 x w: 121 × D: 116 mm
Weight / 1.5 kg
PreSonus, an audio hardware and software company behind products like the Studio One DAW, is a trustworthy brand for cost-effective products. The R65 is a powerful monitor boasting an output of 150W, with a vinyl-laminated cabinet, a 6.5-inch low frequency driver and an AMT tweeter for reproducing super high frequencies. Acoustic Tuning controls let you adjust the sound according to room acoustics.
Thanks to its larger driver, the R65 had a more noticeable bottom compared to the Genelecs, prompting some of the producers to nod in satisfaction. "I liked that the low range was more powerful," said Sauce81. "Some people might prefer monitors that have better separation of sound, but for the music I create this would work well."
"Maybe there's not enough there to fully reproduce the low end," added Gonno, "but it does a good job of rounding out the sound. I don't think you could really monitor low-end decay, like from an 808 kick, for example, but I do think these would work for dance music. Also, it really shows that ribbon tweeters have good high frequency response."
For Sapphire Slows' abstract style and Igarashi's delicate production, the producers felt the Genelec monitor was a better match, although they did see how the R65 may work in certain situations. "My music tends to have more going on in the mid and high frequencies," Sapphire Slows told me. "So when I first heard the R65, I felt like the Genelecs would be better for my music. But after hearing some music by the others, I noticed how good some of it sounded, and it makes me realise how different my sound design would be if I used these. For me though, they would be more for listening purposes instead of production." Igarashi said, "The highs are prominent, but the mids sound a little blurred to me. I wouldn't choose these for precise EQing or working on fine details, but for big productions with vocals they would be a delight to work with."
The difference in musicality between the producers really stands out when they're describing what they look for in studio monitors. Okuda summed up the R65: "Compared to the Genelec, which sounds a bit like it has a limiter on, the R65 really sounds like a proper studio monitor. The sound is natural and closer to the actual mixed audio. Vinyl records sound great on these because you can really hear the dynamics. You get a good sense of how much compression is happening. Also, the Acoustic Tuning on the back is a nice feature to have in order get the sound you want."
SPL / 104 dB
Output / LF: 100 W, HF: 50 W
Frequency Range / 45 Hz - 22 kHz
Speaker / 165 mm woofer, 4,400 mm2 tweeter
Dimensions / H: 328 x w: 203 × D: 261 mm
Weight / 6.6 kg
EVE Audio SC205
Berlin's EVE Audio was established by Roland Stenz, the ex-CEO of ADAM Audio. Their full-range SC monitor series comes equipped with proprietary AMT ribbon tweeters and their own SilverCone woofers, with DSP that lets you tailor the monitor according to the environment.
The SC205 is a two-way monitor with a five-inch woofer. Combining the power of the ribbon tweeter and SilverCone woofer, it has a balanced range of sound that's not too tight. Igarashi, Sapphire Slows and Sauce81 praised the SC205 for its even sound. "It's like a middle ground between Genelec and PreSonus," said Igarashi. "The sound is nicely defined and the mid to high frequencies are clear. It's easy to hear the texture of the reverb as well. I think it's a good one for producers. It has good flatness, even at low volume. So it's perfect for working in an environment where you can't playback loud sounds." Sapphire Slows agreed: "Out of the three we just listened to, this one feels right. As a nearfield monitor, I can't think of any cons. It's easy to see how the EQs affect the sounds as well."
"With these, I don't think I'd need headphones," said Sauce81. "I also think they'd be a great introductory pair for people who've never owned monitors."
Gonno pointed out the benefits of SC205's DSP function for amateur producers. "For people that are creating in an environment with less than ideal acoustics, for example in a room with thin wooden walls or concrete walls, the DSP is a great function for acoustic correction."
"I was expecting them to sound like ADAM monitors, but it turns out they're not as aggressive," said Okuda. "It has a natural characteristic that's similar to passive speakers, combined with the acoustic correction and defined edges of a typical active speaker. It's a good monitor for making music."
SPL / 101 dB
Output / LF: 50 W, HF: 50 W
Frequency Range: 53 Hz - 21 kHz
Speaker / 130 mm woofer, AMT RS1 ribbon tweeter
Dimensions / H: 275 x W: 175 x D: 233 mm
Weight / 5 kg
Focal Shape 40
Shape is a relatively new line of nearfield monitors from France's Focal. Instead of a bass port, the Shape line has passive radiators on the sides, while the M-shaped inverted dome tweeter is designed for optimal nearfield monitoring in a small room. The Shape 40 is the most compact model in the line.
The four monitors have distinct qualities and the producers have different tastes, so it was a surprise to hear that everyone was on the same page with the Shape 40. "For me, the ideal monitor is a speaker that's enjoyable to listen to, as well as monitor on," said Gonno. "In a way that's contradictory, but I feel like the Shape 40 manages to achieve just that. For example, if I were listening to a bad recording, I wouldn't just be nit-picking like I would be on a Yamaha NS-10M."
Igarashi echoed the sentiment. "It sounds nice and clean, but it also feels lively. It'd be a joy to make sounds on these." Okuda pointed out that "although it's an active monitor, it has a very organised, pure sound. The bass frequencies are sharp and it's easier to recognise the pitch. It's very clear how much EQ and compression is going on, so these would be great to mix on." Gonno seemed genuinely surprised, telling me how he "can't believe how robust the low frequencies are, especially from such tiny monitors."
"The basslines in Wata's techno tracks really stood out," said Sapphire Slows. "It just has a certain characteristic that I enjoy. Like what Gonno said, the monitor has a nice balance between delivering an enjoyable listening experience and accurate monitoring. It doesn't seem to add too much colour to the sound, so it's a reliable set for making music." Sauce81 thought this pair may change his whole setup. "I usually make music on speakers that get me excited," he said, "and then also use headphones for monitoring. But with these, I'm probably not going to need headphones."
SPL / 102 dB
Output / LF: 25 W, HF: 25w
Frequency Range / 60 Hz - 35 kHz
Speaker / 100 mm woofer, 25 mm tweeter
Dimensions / H: 275 x W: 161 x D: 200 mm
Weight / 5 kg
After the listening session
The four monitors all share a common goal, but each came with a distinct personality. What may or may not work best in a given studio environment really depends on what the producer is trying to achieve. After the session, we discussed what the producers thought about the monitors, and what they look for when choosing a pair.
From having a flat, accurate sound, to passive-speaker-like naturalness, to somewhere in the middle, the monitors we listened to today all had distinct qualities.
Sapphire Slows: I feel like the Focal Shape 40 was the most balanced out of the four. If I were to use the PreSonus R65, I'd probably have to change my approach a bit. But the Shape 40 would work for any kind of music.
Okuda: The Shape 40 was an excellent choice.
Sauce81: For a balanced overall sound, the Shape 40 is the clear winner. Still, I personally liked how the PreSonus R65 sounded. The EVE Audio SC205 is also a good one if I needed to make music at a quiet volume.
Gonno: I liked the PreSonus R65's sonic colour. It's great for listening.
Wata Igarashi: PreSonus's sound was basically the opposite of the Genelec's.
Gonno: Yes, and that's what made me want it. Because I already use Genelecs, it'd be a good idea to also have a pair of R65s to try and find a sweet spot where it sounds good on both speakers.
Sauce81: With Genelec, you could really hear the details. I heard little flaws in my mixes that made me want to go back and fix it.
What's the most important thing for you when choosing a monitor?
Sauce81: I want to be able to monitor the low end properly.
Wata Igarashi: That's one thing that everyone said. It really makes a difference whether you're imagining what your tracks are going to sound like in a club setting or if you're actually hearing how they're going to sound. With the Genelec 8010A, you can work on the mid to high ranges in detail, but for the lower frequencies, you're going to need headphones or subwoofers. On the other hand, the PreSonus R65 had the most robust low end.
Sapphire Slows: I usually make music in a bedroom studio-type environment, so I'm not able to hear the low end much. What I usually do, like Wata said, is imagine what it's going to sound like while I'm EQing, and then make adjustments when I'm rehearsing. But if I could monitor the lower frequencies better, I'm probably not going to be surprised by how different the tracks sound in rehearsal.
The ribbon tweeters featured in the PreSonus R65 and EVE Audio SC205 have great high frequency response.
Wata Igarashi: From my experience, compared to foreign engineers and producers, Japanese people tend to like subtle high ends. Maybe I'm just not used to it, but I think some people would be put off by the prominent high range the ribbon tweeters produce.
Okuda: I agree that different cultures have different sonic preferences. German mixes sound serious, British mixes sound wet and American mixes tend to have an emphasis in the mid-range. In that regard, I think a good attack is a sign of a good monitor.
Gonno: One thing I noticed about nearfield monitors today was that they obviously can't reproduce super low frequencies like the large monitors in studios, but their overall sound has a sense of uniformity. So it's good to have a pair of these around.
When you compare electronic music to something like a live band, you're going to have different types of instruments and dynamics. I feel that in order to find out what sort of speakers you need for electronic music you need to know what characteristics you are after. Recently, people have been putting more emphasis on textured sound, for example.
Gonno: I think that has something to do with club systems becoming more hi-fi. That's making people focus more on the sound texture of mixes rather than arrangements. Plus, with more and more people using DAWs to mix, it's easier to do a lot with textures without getting too blurry like it might with analogue mixers and tape. But on the other hand, because everything is sounding so digital some people are intentionally recording their music on cassettes and analogue consoles to get that blurriness and distortion.
Wata Igarashi: In techno, we are seeing more DJs play digitally. When we think about how we can make tracks sound their best in clubs—in my opinion, I think it's best to make tracks sound as clean and clear as possible.
Gonno: And as a counter movement to that sort of clear sound, we're seeing things like raw house where people are intentionally making dance tracks with lo-fi aesthetics. Either way, with consumer Bluetooth speakers improving in quality, I think listeners are paying more attention to sound textures and mix balances than before. So when making music, in addition to mix balance, I think texture is important in building character.
Okuda: Mix balance is obviously important, but as an engineer I also agree that texture is vital. So for somebody that makes music, finding speakers that allow you to hear the texture you are envisioning is pivotal.
It's interesting that as PA systems and consumer speakers become more hi-fi, it's making music creators focus more on tonal textures. But even within the context of dance music, I'm sure the kind of textures people are aiming for can vary greatly between styles.
Sauce81: I've always gone for an analogue aesthetic in my music. But when I go to a gig and the PA console they have is digital, and the other acts are playing high bitrate digital tracks, there's a stark contrast between my analogue-esque sound and their digital sounds. It can sometimes change people's perception of the music. I'm not exactly sure what to do about that.
Sapphire Slows: But it's funny how vinyl records sounded great on all four monitors we tested today.
Gonno: I've done an interesting experiment at a DJ gig before. I had a repetitive track that didn't have much going on musically playing on both a CDJ and vinyl, and decided to see which version would keep more people on the dance floor. Turns out, playing the track on vinyl kept more people on the floor than the CDJ.
Okuda: I'm sure the way harmonics sound on vinyl had something to do with that. The fact that each individual sound in the recording is not too separated and kind of sticks together is one of the reasons why vinyl makes the song sound good.
Whether you're going for a crisp digital sound or a more analogue aesthetic, it's important to be able to accurately monitor the textures.
Wata Igarashi: I also think it's important to use headphones just to check.
Sapphire Slows: But it's hard to make music just on headphones. If I make music solely on headphones it's hard for me to find a good balance for vocals, for instance. Monitors are essential.
Okuda: First, you have to find a texture that you like, something that will be a standard for you. From there, you just have to find monitoring devices that align with that standard. That way, even if you switch between speakers and headphones, you have a reference. If you listen to your music on headphones and monitors and the vocals sound nothing alike, you don't know which to trust. But if you decide that your headphones will provide your standard sound, then all you have to do is seek similar textures in speakers and you'll find a pair that's right for you.