Thoughts on Inexpensive Stereo Reference Monitoring

All of the following refers only to STEREO mixing.
Also, if I use the term “2.1” I’m referring to stereo plus monoized sub. It should be noted that in reality, “real” 2.1 is actually more complicated than that. Real 2.1 decodes the source material in more sophisticated ways, depending on the material. But for our purposes, 2.1 means left plus right plus a monoized bass signal.

Here are some main points.

  • Powered monitors that have individual volume controls are a pain cuz they need to be calibrated unless you leave them all the way up, which is a different pain (turning on/off or noise when unplugging etc).
  • Powered moniters kind of suck because when one goes out, youre out the whole setup, which is why I’ve decided it’s better to use an amp and 2 passive speakers
  • No matter what, you’re blind if you don’t have a subwoofer.
  • I can defintely say that 8 inch speakers sound more real than 5 inch
  • I can definitely say that not having a sub is worse than anything
  • the second area where you’re most likely to be blind, is the crisp/shrill (i’d say everything above 5 or 8k) area of highs, followed by the muddy area of low mids (i’d say between 150 and 300) (maybe why 8s are better than 5s)
  • 2-way speakers are definately more reliable than 3-ways or 4-ways… One low driver and one tweeter. If there was such a thing as a driver that could reproduce everthing from ~100hz all the way up to ~12kHz or higher, that’d be the way to go. Basically, monitors have “crossovers” which send highs to the tweeter and lows to the woofer. The crossovers are never perfect so the fewer crossovers the better.
  • I’ve found that “coaxial” 2-ways are better than the typical setup where the tweeter is above the woofer. I think I can detect the difference in location so if the tweeter is in the middle of the woofer, it seems to all be coming from one place. Unfortunately, not many manufacturers make inexpensive coaxial monitors.
  • it’s important to remember that the room you’re in has almost as much to do with what you hear as the speakers. REALLY.
  • amplifier quality is pretty much a non-issue nowadays. Even very cheap amps are very faithful, especially when considering how volatile the speakers and room are as factors.
  • Powered speakers that have their own USB digital to analogue converter: why deal with another layer of bullshit? The mac you’re using has a great sound card! Switching audio outputs in system prefs and in program prefs is a workflow bitch when going from speakers to headphones Etc. Plus, latency! Whenever possible, use the computer soundcard, unless you have some sort of interface that has less latency, which I doubt you do.
  • The fewer components to hook up the better

If money was no object:

  • a good room
  • 2 coaxial 2-way speakers L and R
  • 2 subs L and R
  • Amps for each speaker
  • Crossover adjustment for the subs

Since money is an object

  • A monoized signal for the sub-bass is an ok compromise, since it is true that it’s nearly impossible to tell where the hell in your room the sub is, AND a lot, if not most audio material is mastered to have a monoized low end and since we’re cheap bastards, whom may want to skimp on mastering costs, it may even be smart to just work under the pretense that sub-bass is mono or at least ‘mono-compatible’ meaning there’s no significant phase cancellation in the low end that will cause volume changes when the low end is monoized by someone else’s stupid 2.1 setup.
  • So this means what we’re after on a budget is a 2.1 system. The single sub takes the left and right signal and actively mixes them together (actively as in via a mixer, not a y-cable)

My setup is 2 speakers, mixer, L/R amp, powered Sub.

  • soundcard to mixer.
  • mixer L and R to amp for L/R monitors
  • Mixer mono post-fader send out to powered Sub (post fader so channel volume effects L, R and Sub… In reality, there’s a thing called the “Fletcher-Munsen Curves” which means that bass is not proportianal to highs the same way at every volume level, but for practical purposes, within a typical listening range, I can calibrate the bass to the L/R once and go a little louder or quieter without being too far off) …So I have one volume level which controls everything.

Problem with my setup: Too many components!

If I was going to start over and keep it cheap, I’d buy a consumer-grade 2.1 system and toss the L/R speakers that came with it and instead, use my high-end coaxial 2-ways for the L/R. The 2.1 system would have a sub crossover frequency adjustment and a sub volume and a master volume. Then I’d have:

  • 3 pieces: sub containing all three amps, a Left passive monitor, a Right passive Monitor
  • one stereo mini going from the computer to the sub, where the L/R amps and the Sub amp is housed, and 2 speaker wires going to my L/R monitors.
  • NOTE: The L/R Monitors are where the money is spent!  If the 2.1 Amp/Sub bullshit dies, toss it and get a new one.

Finally

I really think you should have at LEAST a hundred watts of power for the sub!!  Meanwhile I think you can get away with far less for L/R… Maybe even as low as Twenty Watts!  But it also depends on how efficient the amplifiers are… And since we’re trying to get all three amps and a sub in one unit, we’re essentially shopping for bass power.  The L/R will be plenty.