Thomas Triggs / Android Authority
In an audio world dominated by big brands like Sony, Yamaha, M-Audio, and JBL, there’s a head-scratching amount of choice when it comes to buying affordable, high-quality speaker systems. I was recently faced with just this conundrum, and although portable Bluetooth and smart home-connected speakers are popular options, I wanted something a cut above the rest when it came to sound quality.
I wasn’t looking for portable speakers — they’re great if you’re on the go but often sacrifice quality for connectivity. I wanted something static at my desk that delivered the power and clarity I was desperate for (so, nothing too sophisticated like “smart” speaker multi-room systems). This narrowed down my choices to either classic bookshelf stereo speakers, or studio monitors — the sort used in professional recording environments.
Music producer or music fan?
Ryan Haines / Android Authority
As a touring musician, I’m constantly torn between the needs of a creator and an avid listener. I spend a lot of time working with producers, each of whom uses a completely different set of studio monitors to achieve the sound they want to create.
This led me to the question; why not use studio monitors at home to listen to my favorite music? Well, it turns out there are a lot of reasons.
For starters, the main purpose of using studio monitors is to achieve a very honest representation of the music that you put through them, also known as a “flat frequency response.” They’re also used in a near-field environment, such as a small room or most commonly positioned right in front of you. Each speaker also has in-built amplifiers and is “active,” meaning that they each require their own power supply. And finally, you have external crossover controls on each speaker (a device that splits the signal into high/ low frequencies) to avoid mixing frequencies and distortion.
Why not use studio monitors to listen to my favorite music? Well, turns out there are pros and cons.
Compare these to bookshelf or Bluetooth speakers, which usually have custom tuning to boost the lower frequencies (think of your car stereo as a good reference for what I mean), have very few controls, and are usually loud enough to use outside when you want to host a BBQ in the garden and blast your infamous Summer Anthem playlist from Spotify. All of a sudden, the two sound systems feel very different in their respective applications.
However, I wanted to delve deeper and experience it all for myself, so, I decided to take the jump and forked out for my first set of “proper” studio speakers — the Adam Audio T5V Nearfield Monitors.
Adam Audio T5V studio monitor
Setting up studio monitors isn’t so straightforward
Priced at a reasonable £279.00 at the time of purchase (currently $199/£135 each), the Adam Audio T5V is a semi-affordable introduction to the audio editing world. But before I could sprint off the starting line into the exciting unknown, I would need to find a way to connect my computer to my speakers.
You see, studio monitors don’t use Bluetooth or the 3.5mm headphone jack input that we’re so familiar with (queue flashback of 90’s Harman Kardon’s). Regular jack cables don’t support noise suppressing balanced inputs, and Bluetooth has high latency that isn’t suitable for recording and editing music. No, what I would need to get my hands on is an audio interface with a balanced output to connect up to my newfound toys.
Power sockets, external interfaces, and extra cables make wiring up a headache.
Interfaces can cost anywhere between ~£60 and £5,000+, depending on the brand and also how many inputs and outputs you’re after. You could argue that this additional cost makes studio monitors worse value for money, and arguably, you’d be right. But you don’t have to spend huge amounts of money on an interface to get the job done. I settled on the Focusrite Scarlett 6i6 for a pretty reasonable £115.00 at the time of purchase, which has the two balanced XLR Monitor Output channels that I needed to get working.
Thankfully I had a spare four-socket extension lead lying around, so with that out of the way, the last thing I had to do was to plug in the kettle leads to each monitor. This is another key difference from regular stereo systems, which are usually powered “passively” via a stereo cable from a single amplifier. Finally, I flick the on switch and play my first song. It’s worth noting (in hindsight), these things can kick up to 106dB per pair! Good job they weren’t on full volume.
The flat and wide frequency response of the impressive five-inch bass woofers and Adam Audio’s innovative 1.9-inch accelerated ribbon U-ART tweeters (high-frequency speakers) sounded amazing. I was surprised by their sheer power and clarity. I’d never owned a pair of speakers like them, and for what it’s worth, they’re still amazing monitors today.
See also: In an age of smart speakers, sometimes Bluetooth is still king
Even though virtually all studio monitors have waveguides to integrate the bass woofer and tweeter drivers, I found the T5V’s HPS waveguides to have a very even and uniform consistency in the broad horizontal and tight vertical planes, which minimizes potentially distracting reflections. They also benefit from a large, well-controlled, and stable “sweet spot,” even at high output levels.
Thanks to their compact size (11.7 x 7 x 11.7 inches), the speakers are easy to place wherever you need to work. Combined with their large listening sweet spot, they’re perfect for content creation whilst sitting in an optimized listening space. I’d highly recommend them if you’re looking to hone your craft creatively. For use as a set of regular music speakers, however, you’d only really hear the benefits if you have a chair positioned in exactly the right spot between the monitors and don’t intend to do any dancing.
I wanted something a cut above when it came to sound quality. Adam Audio’s T5V delivers.
The T5V’s also benefit from some pretty tasty EQ controls on the back panel, so you can adjust the high and low shelf EQs by -2dB, 0dB, and +2dB, respectively. I found this to be especially useful given that the mid-low range felt a little light on the 0dB setting. This isn’t to say that you would have the exact same experience using these monitors — the size and shape of the room, the furniture within it, and the material of the walls will all influence the acoustics and, therefore, what you hear from the monitors. I, for example, use mine in a room no larger than 2.5m x 2.5m, filled with other musical equipment that acts as dampeners. But I also sit less than 1m from my monitors, positioned at roughly 45-degree angles to my ears. If I had one caveat with these speakers in general, however, it’s that the LEDs to indicate that the monitors are “on” are located on the back panels, which seems a little pointless.
Monitors for music, are they worth it?
So, you’re probably wondering, “are they worth it?”. Well, from a music-producing aspect, absolutely! From a music fan’s perspective, probably not.
Don’t get me wrong, listening to my favorite artists on these behemoths sounds amazing, provided you’re sitting in the sweet spot, and they also look great. They’re very easy to use (once they’re set up and on), provide very good control with their in-built EQ for each monitor, and are pretty compact compared to some others I’ve seen in studios.
However, it’s a bit of a hassle to have to go through the rigamarole of turning the interface and each speaker on each time I want to annoy my neighbors with a terrible rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody. There’s also the issue of what you’ll be connecting to the interface, given that most interfaces use either Thunderbolt, FireWire, or USB connectivity — not exactly suitable for use with mobile phones or MP3 players. You also need to consider just how static studio monitors are, with no Bluetooth connections (ultra-low latency being absolutely paramount in music production) — and at 5.7kg for my T5V’s, I wouldn’t be going anywhere in a hurry.
Without Bluetooth connectivity, monitors aren’t suitable for use with mobile phones or MP3 players.
Still, if you can imagine yourself reclining into a perfectly placed, comfortable chair in your dedicated music room, closing your eyes, and letting yourself disappear amongst the melodies, unimpaired by bass-boosting or excessive volume, then maybe a pair of studio monitors are right up your street. However, if you’re looking to have your friends over for some drinks in the lounge or to go to the park and do some yoga, then there are likely more appropriate speakers out there for you.
They’re certainly not for everybody
Take the portable Marshall Kilburn II, for example. For a very similar price to my T5V’s at £220/$299 (and no additional interface cost), it has Bluetooth 5.0 with a range of up to 30 feet and aptX support for improved wireless audio quality, 36W of output power, 20+ hours of listening time with fast charging in under 2.5 hours, and a water-resistant design with an IPX2 rating. You’ve also got bass and treble EQ dials and, well, it looks like a Marshall amplifier (Slash, eat your heart out)!
Or, if you don’t think that’s serious enough for you and you have the budget to afford an amplifier as well, why not take a look at the ELAC Debut B5.2 bookshelf speakers? You can fetch these impressive beasts for as little as £229/$329 (as of writing), and they have a world of top-range features, including 5-1/4-inch Aramid Fibre bass woofers and 1-inch cloth dome tweeters. In fact, their frequency response is wider than my T5V’s at a huge 46Hz-35kHz. Sure, they’re made for stereo amplifiers and vinyl players, but if you’re after a set of high-end speakers that pack a punch and make your room tremble, then maybe they’re exactly what you’re looking for.
If you can imagine yourself reclining into a perfectly placed, comfortable chair in your dedicated music room, studio monitors could be for you.
From my experience, studio monitors really only have two fundamental uses. One, for music producers and creatives looking for a very honest representation of what they’re recording or editing. The other (and less common), is for dedicated music fans that have the required space for a static setup that is just for them to enjoy music at its rawest. In general, I would say that it isn’t particularly user-friendly to have to switch several power supplies on each time you want to listen to some music.
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It also sucks that you need an additional interface, and the added cost will put a lot of people off. You can buy some really good “regular” speakers (the two listed in the above paragraphs serve as good examples) for cheaper than my T5V’s and a lot of other monitors for that matter, bearing in mind that T5V’s are pretty affordable in comparison to other studio options. The sound quality from high-end bookshelf speakers, for example, is incredible too, and they can sound (subjectively) even better than studio monitors because of the added bass-boosting, especially if you’re mainly listening to contemporary genres of music with less dynamic nuances and timbre. Studio monitors aren’t usually used to make your foot tap — they’re there for crystal clear signals so that you can be critical and precise about the music coming out of them.
If you’re just looking to sing along to your favorite songs, a Bluetooth or smart speaker is probably better.
To round off here, I guess what I’m trying to say is that studio monitors have a very precise and important function: to produce a very clear signal. This runs in contrast to bookshelf and Bluetooth speakers, which often have an in-built bass booster and EQ to make the music you listen to sound more full. So, if you’re a musician or artist like me who wants to create and hone their craft with very (sometimes too) honest speakers or are a muso who likes their music completely unaltered by in-built custom tuning, then grabbing a pair of studio monitors is the way forward. On that note, I would absolutely recommend the Adam Audio T5Vs, especially for beginners.
If you’re even more hardpressed budget-wise, then you could also take a look at the KRK Classic 5 Powered Studio Monitors, which are very popular amongst home-studio artists and also benefit from -2dB to +2dB high/low-frequency EQ controls. However, if you’re just looking to sing along to your favorite songs or have a dance with your mates, then a pair of Bluetooth or stereo speakers are probably going to sit just right.
Adam Audio T5V studio monitor
An affordable entry point into the world of studio audio
A highly affordable two-way nearfield monitor, optimized for small studio and controlled listening environments.