Nearfield Monitors

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How to purchase, place and use nearfield monitors to get the most out of them.

Many years ago all you would see in many studio control rooms were full-sized loudspeakers. 12" woofer driven 3-way speakers and the control room had to be very large just to use them properly.

With the advancement of speaker technology, and the increase in home and project studio popularity, new, smaller speakers have become more popular. These so-called "nearfield" monitors are designed to be able to accurately recreate the sound of the music in a smaller environment with the speakers placed more closely to the "sweet spot".

That said, many of the home and project studio owners still do not use them properly. If one is going to go to the considerable expense of buying nice speakers one should also put out the comparatively small effort of using them properly and get the best performance from them.

Stereo Speaker Placement

Nearfield speakers, as the name implies, are meant to be listened to from a closer range than common speakers. Typically nearfields are within 6 feet (a couple meters for you European folks) of the listeners ears. The speakers, in an optimal situation, will form a perfect triangle with the two speakers and the listeners head. If the right speaker is 6 feet from your right ear, the left should be 6 feet from your left ear and the two speakers should be six feet apart. Once you have that situated properly, it's time to deal with height. I am unsure if this is a rule or just my experience and habit, but I personally place the speaker upright tweeter over woofer and have the tweeter as close to level with my ear as possible since the tweeter is the high frequencies, as they disperse less and die quicker than the low frequencies.

Now there is the small matter of what to set them on. I will get in to the details of what works best after I say this: Whatever you set them on, make sure it's the same for both of them. As we all know, different substances have different properties for absorbing vibrations and sound. Therefore, you want them both on the same surface. Setting them directly on your desk or any furniture like that is usually what happens, and it does work, but it's not the best answer. This is problematic because if the full bottom surface of the speaker is resting on the desk a lot of vibration is then transmitted through the speaker and into the desk and then throws off your monitoring.

A while ago I used and reviewed a set of speaker stands from Stereocilia. These types of stands are perfect for monitor placement because they isolate the monitor from the rest of the room by absorbing vibration before it makes trouble. They do this by making minimal contact between the speaker and the stand and then between and stand and the floor. Often times they are also filled with sand to help the absorbing of the vibration. I still use those stands today, they are one of the best things I did for my monitoring and my studio's sound.

All that said, there are things you can do much quicker, and cheaper. Putting any sort of small "feet" on your speakers, rubber pads or the little felt sticky things people put on chair and table legs that sit on wood floors can help minimize contact between the speaker and the surface it's resting on, as well as absorbing vibration.

To Sub or Not to Sub

In your home studio situation, it is generally not advisable to use a subwoofer unless you are creating something specifically for use in systems with one, such as home theater systems. If you are creating typical stereo music, a subwoofer will more often than not result in final mixes that have an over or under powered low end. This happens due to a sub woofer being improperly set up. Setting up a subwoofer to be used effectively in a stereo situation (or any really) requires the levels of the sub be precisely set to match your satellite speakers. If the sub is too loud your mixes will end up with a very quite low end on other system, if it's too quiet your mixes will have an exaggerated low end on other systems due to your compensating for the weakness in your studio.

Subwoofers, due to the low frequencies it handles, are also great affected by the environment they are in. You will get two different level if turning the sub to face away from the wall, or facing the wall, and also if it's facing a flat wall or a corner. If it's under a desk, table or sofa will be different than out in the middle of the room.

I will simply leave this subject with saying, if you are set on getting one, make darn sure you get an SPL meter and study up on the best setup, so it can get set up accurately.

Surround Sound

If you are one of the many people now playing with surround sound, you have then found that it's a brave new world. A subwoofer is not only helpful, but required as it is it's own discrete channel in any system ending in a ".1".

I do not have room, in this article, to get into the exact speaker placements around the listeners head for surround as there are now a few different formats, but we can discuss generals.

  • PC games seem to have somewhat adopted a goofy "4.1" setup, which seems like the old quad system from the 70's with a sub added to it.
  • Beyond that there is the most common, 5.1 which has a speaker right in front of the listen, one off to each side in front and one off to each side in back in addition to the sub. Also, still common is Dolby Pro Logic, which consists of the five speakers, but no independent sub channel. Typically the front left and right speakers are larger, full size speakers to make up for the lack of a sub.
  • 6.1 is 5.1 with a rear center speaker added
  • 7.1 has the sub, a front center, a front left and right, a rear left and right and then a left and right directly beside the listener.

Going further there are massive systems. 10.1 is being used a bit, and, I read in a trade mag that one of the LEGO™ theme parks has a 30-position surround setup in one of it's theatres. This includes speakers above and underneath the listener and all the way around. I really want to visit one of these places, partly because I am a fan of LEGO™ (come on, be honest, who doesn't love playing with LEGO™ building blocks) and the sound must be stellar.

Quality and Pricing

You get what you pay's just as true with speakers as with anything else. The quality of a speaker can not be judged by the size of it's cabinet or the size of it's woofer. Very good sound can come out of a well-designed cabinet, even with a 6 inch woofer.

When trying out speakers at the store, consider the listening room the store has. I have found, quite surprisingly, that stores do not always have a listening area that shows their speakers in their best light. Listen to many models, side by side, flipping back and forth, noticing the strengths and weaknesses of each.

When I picked my monitors about 6 years ago or so, which I still use today, I must have sat in Guitar Center for two hours just listening to a dozen different speaker sets. To my surprise, and my wife's delight, the set I liked best was like second or third from the bottom in price...but they were designed well, were not big, looked nice, sounded good and had a respectable name I felt I could trust...couldn't go wrong.

Lastly, while it is important to get the best speakers you can, it is just as important to know the strengths and weaknesses of your speakers, and your room, so you can learn to mix accordingly with them. Getting to know them can make your mixing a much more enjoyable and productive experience.

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User-submitted comments

Oct 04, 2004 07:02 am
nice article...enjoyed reading

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