Loudspeakers: Accurate or Pleasing?
By Ethan Winer
A common question I see in audio forums asks about the difference between professional studio monitors and regular hi-fi speakers. Conventional wisdom says that monitors must be as flat as possible to mix accurately, while hi-fi speakers should aim for a pleasing sound. It seems to me that a hi-fi speaker should aim to recreate the same listening experience that the mixing and mastering engineers heard in their rooms while equalizing and otherwise adjusting the sound of the recording. Otherwise, the listener will not fully appreciate the artist’s intent. So by that logic, a hi-fi speaker should also be as accurate as possible. If someone prefers an intentionally skewed frequency response, it probably makes sense to just buy an equalizer. Then you can also dial in different response curves to tailor the sound on a per-recording basis.
This brings up the related issue of whether speakers used for professional mixing benefit from a pleasing frequency response curve. In my opinion that’s not a good idea, and I find the current trend toward “smooth sounding” non-harsh loudspeakers aimed at the professional market disturbing. If you mix on speakers that have an intentional dip in the harshness range between 2 to 4 KHz, you’ll tend to add too much energy in that range to compensate, making your mixes sound brittle on good speakers that are more accurate. Indeed, loudspeaker selection is one of the most difficult and personal decisions anyone can make, whether you’re a professional recording engineer or serious listener. There are many audio devices I’d buy mail-order based on specs alone, but a loudspeaker is not one of them! You might find the following anecdote interesting:
In 2009 I brought one of my Mackie 624s to the studio of a friend, a well-known mastering engineer in New York City. I wanted to measure my Mackie, which I know is very flat, and compare it to a measurement of one of his Revel Ultima Studio 2 speakers whose specs are also very flat. I had heard his Revel speakers a month before and was blown away. I just had to learn how two supposedly “flat” speakers could sound so different. Figure 16.17 shows the response I measured for both speakers. (A better comparison would be to Mackie HR824s, which are larger and play to lower frequencies than 624s.) Well, they didn’t sound very different at all! It was just the situation, the music we played, the different room, expectation, and so forth. When both speakers were placed next to each other, with my small Mackie upside down on top of his larger Revel and the tweeters very close together, there were differences in the frequency response as measured and heard. But the differences were small. At one point I thought I was hearing the Revel, but it was actually my Mackie. The test was not blind, and it wasn’t even a test. My friend did the switching, and at one point I lost track of which speaker was playing. When he asked which speaker I thought I was hearing, I guessed wrong. So I no longer lust after the Revels, though they are excellent and a little flatter at the highest frequencies compared to my Mackies. But at $16,000 per pair versus under $1,300 for two Mackie HR824s, I no longer have speaker envy.
The always colorful, widely followed Ethan Winer has, at various times, worked as a studio musician, computer programmer, circuit designer, recording engineer, composer/arranger, technical writer, and college instructor. He’s had nearly 100 feature articles published in audio and computer magazines including Mix, PC Magazine, Electronic Musician, EQ Magazine, Audio Media, Sound on Sound, Keyboard, Pro Sound News, and Recording. In 2002 he started the company RealTraps to manufacture bass traps and other acoustic treatment, which he continues to this day. Ethan is also the author of the book The Audio Expert, recently published by Focal Press. Above is an excerpt from Chapter 16.