Monitor Mummery

Monitor (noun)
1) an instrument used for observing, checking, or keeping a continuous record of a process or quantity.
2) a loudspeaker used by performers on stage to hear themselves, or in a studio to hear what is being recorded.

Monitors are small to keep them out of the way so they don’t block the performers, or to fit over a mixing board in a recording studio control booth where there is no floor space. They serve a utilitarian function for these less than critical needs. When it comes to processes that require accurate sound reproduction, such as, mixing and mastering, monitors are not generally used since they don’t have the bandwidth. They weren’t designed for critical listening, only for monitoring.

Is there a need for monitors at home? For small rooms that have little floor space for speakers, such as an office, or maybe for a bedroom, monitors can be useful. But most monitors aren’t used that way. They are set on stands and used for primary dedicated listening, taking up the same floorspace as a floor stander. What gives?

Do monitors have any advantages over floor standers?
—Monitors are usually two-way—not an advantage.
—Monitors have smaller internal air volume—not an advantage.
—Monitors require the addition of a sub—not an advantage.
—Monitors cost less (some)—maybe something to gain.
—Monitors give consumers more choices—psychological advantage.

So, let’s examine each statement.

What’s wrong with two-ways? They’re not full range, nor can they be. The laws of physics precludes making a two-way that can produce the full range of audible frequencies at the same level and at low distortion. Three-way monitors can do the job, but they need to be larger—much larger, as big as a floor stander.

What’s wrong with a smaller air volume? Smaller air volume has less compliance, that is, it’s stiffer, which restricts the bass driver’s motion. Restricting the driver’s motion raises both the resonance frequency and the Q. Higher resonance means it has a harder time producing low frequencies; higher Q means you get loosey-goosey, boomy bass around the resonance frequency. But these issues also raise a question often overlooked. Why waste the space below the monitor with a stand? Why not use the space, wasted by the stand, for more air volume. Now you have a floor stander.

Doesn’t adding a sub solve the low range problem? Adding a single sub is a poor solution, because it creates stronger room modes. Dual subs in different locations help even out the inevitable sums and nulls in a room’s bass response, but now you’re taking up more floor space, more than a pair of floor standers.

Is there a real cost savings? Smaller cabinets, less material, lighter weight, cost less to build. Everyone likes getting more for your money, but when you add in the cost of a good pair of subs—savings gone.

We all like to have choices. It gives us a feeling of being in control. Choosing monitors, selecting good stands, and the complication of integrating subs, give us lots of choices—and lots of things to play with and fuss over. If there is a good reason for monitors, this is it. You want a challenge? You want to have more choices and make more decisions? Forgo floor standers; go with monitors.

There you have it. One good reason out of five in favor of monitors.

Oh but, there’s another but. I have left out one other big factor. Unless the floor stander uses an active crossover and separate amplification, at least to the bass driver, you’d be better off with monitors and subs. Most floorstanders are three-way with passive crossover. Feeding a 3-way, solid down to 30 Hz or lower, with a single amp puts a giant load on the amp. If it doesn’t have the muscle, big Awnold stewoidal muscle, forget about it. You’re much better off divvying up the load between a pair of monitors and subs. That is a major advantage.

So, I started with the intention of panning monitors, but instead, I’ve talked myself into them. However, even a two-way monitor, flat to at least 50-60 Hz, needs a sufficiently large air volume. Either make the cabinet deeper/wider and use a stand, or make it taller and do away with the stand. The difference becomes the stand, and that’s money spent on a piece of furniture that has no substantive sonic purpose.

Maybe there is a place in the audiophile’s home for monitors. It just needs careful consideration. Thoughtfully sorting through the pros and cons and variables requires extra effort, time, and knowledge. And we’re back to choices. Yea!

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