Buyer's Guide: Nearfield Monitors

Sometimes the end is the beginning. When it comes to your audio signal chain, it all ends at your studio monitors, which are then the beginning of your interaction with the sound that they relay. At this key juncture, you want the best product your budget can afford. When building a new studio or upgrading an existing one, the monitors should be at the top of your priority list.

For many of us, that means specifically nearfield reference monitors. Why nearfield? What makes the “nearfield” so important for listening is that the closer the speaker (aka the driver) is to the ear, the less room reflection is involved in the sonic waves. This allows the listener to hear more of the captured signal and less of the room, with all its inherent distortions. Big wall and soffit-mounted monitors are great to have, but the real detail is found in the nearfield.

The old saying in golf is that you drive for show and putt for dough. The same is true in monitoring; the big drivers on the wall, your main monitors are great for showing off and having an immersive listening experience, but the short game, i.e. the short distance to your nearfields, is where the big payoff is.

To help choose the best monitors for your studio, let’s break down all that nomenclature.


Enclosure

This is the box that holds all the components. Enclosures come in all shapes and sizes, with nearfields generally being compact. This is for two reasons; they do not have to be as loud and powerful as main monitors, and they usually only have a woofer and tweeter, with no midrange speaker.

Enclosures can make a huge difference in the resulting sound of a given speaker, with much attention paid by the maker to the cabinet material (to eliminate negative resonances) and the front fascia. This is especially true around the tweeter. In order to shape the outgoing sound waves, many manufacturers have proprietary curved designs to harness the inherently directional nature of high-frequency sonic waves. Genelec and Neumann are typical examples.


CROSSOVER

The crossover gets its name from its function, as it is a network of circuitry that determines where the frequency band gets split up and sent to different speakers. The points where the signal stops going to the woofer and heads for the midrange instead is one of the “crossover” points on the spectrum. Part of the reason for crossovers is simple energy management.

As you might expect, it takes more energy to create lower bass frequencies than it does higher frequencies. Since speaker types are specialized, you want your finely tuned tweeters to be spared the task of having to deal with the low end too. It wears them down when they want to be flying high. Although outboard crossovers are available, most of the time they are built into the enclosure and tailored to the specific drivers of that enclosure.


SUBWOOFER

The subwoofer (or “sub”) is the basso profundo of the speaker world. It’s designed to reproduce all the lowest frequencies, sometimes even those you can’t hear, but only feel. A typical crossover frequency is 120 Hz; below that, the sub handles all the duties. It’s usually big and power-hungry, and despite its size, the sub can really help in nearfield monitoring due to the physics of sound.

Low bass frequencies are much less directional than mids and highs, so you don’t have to have your sub sitting on top of the mixing console. It can be moved to a convenient location nearby and you will still hear/feel it doing its thing. Because it’s so power-hungry, a subwoofer is usually self-powered, or active. Often the sub will also have an adjustable crossover to let the user decide which frequencies it should handle.


WOOFER

The woofer handles the low end. In the early days of speaker design, this name was chosen to imitate the type of sound the larger speaker reproduces, i.e. the woofing of a dog. Yes, it’s that simple. More complicated is pinning down the exact specs of a woofer. In speaker design, everything is relative, so there is no fixed size for a woofer. It could be 4” or 15” across.

The key point is that the woofer is the driver inside the enclosure designed to deliver the low end. In a typical main monitor, this would be a very large cone driver. In a nearfield reference monitor, the size is more typically 6-8”. Because most nearfields have only two drivers, the woofer also has to handle some of the midrange frequencies. This is where a good crossover becomes critical in deciding where to split up the spectrum for the best reproduction.


MIDRANGE

A true midrange will be part of a three-way (or more) monitor system, which is almost always found in main monitors. In nearfields, this driver is usually absent and its role split between the woofer and tweeter.


TWEETER

Tweeter is not just a character in a Traveling Wilburys song; its more important role is to reproduce the high end of the sonic spectrum. And of course, tweeter got its silly name for the same reason as its big brother. Its an imitation of the sounds it makes, such as the high-pitched tweeting of birds. A tweeter is also relative and has no fixed size; it may be larger in nearfields because it has to reproduce some of the midrange as well. In main monitors, the tweeter can be smaller since it handles a narrower spectrum, and there may be more than one.


POWER AMPLIFIER

Power amps make everything go on their “excursion,” the technical term for how far from its resting point a speaker will travel back and forth. In this analogy, the power amp is like the car and the speaker is like the driver. Good thing they’re called drivers, isn’t it? Well, every driver needs an amplifier.

In the past, this was always a standalone piece of gear, usually stored well away from the speaker because of its heat generation, and connected by heavy duty copper cabling to the speaker terminals. This made the speaker passive, simply sitting there waiting for power to be delivered so that it could go on its excursions.

But in the last few decades, the trend has been to have an active monitor, with the power amp(s) right inside the enclosure. Advanced technology in amplifier design has made them smaller, lighter, more efficient, and highly accurate. Plus, they can be fine-tuned to work with exactly the drivers held in the enclosure, and often each driver has its own amp (a technique known as bi-amping or tri-amping).

A side benefit is a lot less cabling to deal with, but either way works. Passive proponents want to use their own favorite amp, while active advocates want a neutral source that is convenient and efficient. There is no wrong choice, only options.

Active vs. Passive Monitors

All monitoring systems require an enclosure to hold the speakers; a crossover to split the frequency bands for different speaker types, some combination of subwoofer, woofer, midrange and tweeter and a power amplifier to drive those speakers. The power amp can be internal, making the monitor self-powered or “active,” or it can be a piece of outboard gear, making the monitor “passive.” A majority of monitors today are self-powered, but plenty of passive models are still around, such as Amphion, ATC Loudspeakers, Auratone, Avantone, ProAc, and Quested.

 

The Sound of Monitors And Ear Fatigue

The quality of today’s products is such that all studio-quality monitors can reproduce the full frequency spectrum and well beyond it. So why do monitors all sound so different? Numerous factors are at play; cabinet design, cone and dome material, amplifier and crossover implementation, etc.

Although a piano and violin can play most of the same spectrum, they each have a distinct timbre that relies heavily on how their tone is produced. Monitors are no different in that respect. And that’s a good thing, because a crystal-clear, pure and perfect representation of every nuance of every musical tone would actually be quite fatiguing to the ear. Humans tend to like a little bit of harmonic distortion, a little bit of color to their sound experience. It’s like the difference between a bright, full spectrum LED and a warmer incandescent bulb. Which would you rather sit under for eight hours or more?

Listening on the wrong monitors can lead to fatigue over time, so it’s important to audition your choices carefully and with a good variety of material. Give the monitors a fair chance to prove themselves, and don’t just believe the hype – good or bad – about any given monitor, model, or maker. Your ears and brain are the only judges that matter. But even on those you like the best, there is a danger of ‘mix blindness,’ where long stretches of hearing the same thing cause the brain to decide that the sound is good overall, even when it’s not. So it’s important to remember to give yourself a break. Even the best monitors do you no good when your brain is overworked.

Nearfield Monitor Options For Your Studio

In the end, all that really matters is the sound. With so many manufacturers creating nearfield monitors and each doing it in their own way, there are a lot of different options for your studio. Continue below to browse through some of our best selling nearfield monitors and click on the corresponding link to learn more about each specific model.

 

ATC Loudspeakers SCM25A, SCM45A

Focal SM9, Alpha 65, Shape Twin, Shape 50, Twin6 Be, Trio6 Be, Trio11 Be

Amphion One18

Genelec 1032C

Avantone CLA-10

Barefoot Sound MicroMain 45, MicroMain 27, Footprint 01

Dynaudio LYD 48

ADAM Audio A7X, A77X, A5X, T7V, T5V, S2V

Neumann KH120

Yamaha HS5, HS8

Josh Frost
If you’re interested in learning more about nearfield monitors or any other type of studio monitors, contact a Vintage King Audio Consultant via email or by phone at 866.644.0160.

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