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Q. Can I use a hi-fi system instead of studio monitors?

By David Greeves

Does anyone use hi-fi separates for monitoring? I never read about it in SOS. Aren't monitors and hi-fi components trying to do the same thing? I ask because with £300 to spend there are only a few well regarded monitors available that I've found, but for that money there are any number of amp and speaker combinations from respected manufacturers — not to mention that it's much easier to find places to audition them.

Steve Whitehouse

News Editor David Greeves replies: It's not a daft question, Steve! In fact, it's something we're often asked, for precisely the same reason that you're asking it — for the price of some pretty modest active nearfield monitors you could buy some above-average hi-fi speakers, or even a whole system. There's nothing to say that you can't use hi-fi systems for monitoring, but it's important to understand how they differ from studio monitors, and why most people opt for the latter.

Firstly, hi-fi systems are generally designed to compliment or flatter the source material while studio monitors should aim to be as neutral and honest as possible, so as to reveal any problems to the engineer. Not all studio monitors acheive this, of course, and you could argue that a high-end hi-fi system will serve you better in this respect than a set of budget monitors. But some hi-fi systems apply a slight 'smile' EQ curve to make material sound more immediate and exciting, or artificially boost the bass end (either through EQ or bass reflex ports in the speakers) in ways that make it more difficult to really hear what is going on in your mix. When mixing, your aim should be to produce something that will sound good (or as good as possible) on a wide range of different systems. Lots of people like to audition their final mixes on a variety of hi-fi systems (not to mention car stereos, boomboxes, televisions — you name it!) but for the business of mixing itself, will try and use as neutral a system as possible.

From a more practical point of view, nearly all studio monitors are magnetically shielded so that they can be used in close proximity to CRT computer screens; hi-fi speakers may not be. Also, studio monitors are generally more robust than their hi-fi counterparts, as they need to cope with being used for extended periods of time, often at quite high listening levels. They also have to put up with the clicks and pops that occur when equipment is plugged in and unplugged, the occasional bit of feedback and other general abuse!

Studio monitors — even quite basic ones — also generally feature some way of tailoring their response to suit their environment, even if it's just a bass roll-off control for use when the monitor is up against a wall. No hi-fi speakers that I know of offer this kind of facility. Finally, while nearfield monitors are designed (as the name suggests) to be situated right in front of the engineer, hi-fi speakers are not — designers expect them to be listened to from a distance. Hi-fi speakers are expected to fill the room with sound, while nearfields need to provide precise information at close quarters.

Ultimately, the choice is up to you. If you feel your current budget won't allow you to buy some decent studio monitors, perhaps a hi-fi system is preferable. Just be aware of the potential pitfalls outlined above, and if you buy separates, there's scope for you to upgrade to a studio-quality amp and passive monitors in stages. In the end, whatever monitoring system you use, it's important to become familiar with how it sounds by listening to a variety of commercially released material so that you can be objective about your own mixes. 

Published June 2006