As you probably guessed from the title, not all speakers are built the same. The hi-fi surround sound system you use in your home is much different from a pair of studio monitors and speakers designed for a PA system. If you’ve shopped around for speakers, you’ve probably noticed that these different have different price ranges, and may have wondered if they are interchangeable. What makes a monitor different from any surround sound speaker?
Well, if you care about music quality to a significant extent, then these different speaker types are not interchangeable. Sure, you could get away with using studio monitors to listen to music in your home, but it certainly won’t be ideal. You might run into problems, and if you love audio, you will not get nearly the same experience from the wrong kind of speaker. Speakers are built differently for different purposes and don’t all have the same capabilities:
Hi-fi or high-fidelity speakers are used for home cinema and audio listening in your house. A speaker system can start with just two left and right channel speakers, or can be composed of 7 or more different speakers, including subwoofers, floorstanding speakers, and a centre speaker. ‘High-fidelity’ means true to the audio source; these speakers are designed to have a full range frequency response to reproduce the audio source accurately, or with little to no distortion. They allow you to hear details in the audio and play it back exactly as it was intended to be heard when it was created. The classic hi-fi experience is an immersive sound that feels as though the instruments are being played right in front of you. You can feel the bass and the kick drum, and still notice all of the small details like the song’s panning and reverb effects.
So hi-fi speakers were created to produce an exceptionally accurate and immersive sound. However, the name hi-fi is slightly misleading because hi-fi speakers are still designed to sound good. Almost all of them add some sort of “color” to the audio. Most consumer grade speakers have boosted bass and treble frequencies to make the audio sound fuller. Many audiophiles prefer certain brands for their specific sound profile. This sound profile depends on the speaker’s balance of frequencies, which can be impacted by factors like design, materials used, and other engineering choices. These speakers are also designed to sound good from any angle within a room. Speaker placement still matters, and you might notice changes depending on where you are positioned in relation to the speakers, but for the most part, they will be able to fill the entire room with beautiful audio.
Home audio speakers are almost always passive. This means they require external power from an amplifier. This is because loudspeakers require a lot of power to produce audio at high volumes. Using an external amp gives you more control over the sound system and the audio signals.
Monitors are used by audio engineers and musicians for recording, producing, mixing, and mastering music. They are designed for critical listening rather than consumer listening. This means they reproduce audio as close to the original source as possible – even more so than hi-fi speakers. You can hear all the details of the audio with no added sound profile or frequency boosts. When it comes to critical listening, sound engineers and producers need to be able to hear the mistakes and imperfections; they don’t want any alteration of the frequency balance. Small details in the mix, panning, and the recordings themselves need to be audible in order to make production decisions.
For this reason, studio monitors lack specific sound profiles and balances, and instead produce a flat, neutral audio signal. They are also designed only for nearfield listening from a specific point. Rather than sounding good from any angle in the room, audio from studio monitors is directed towards a specific location that is typically less than a few feet from the speakers. If you move around a pair of studio monitors, you will notice that the sound changes significantly.
Unlike hi-fi speakers, monitors are usually active, meaning they have a built-in amplifier. This allows them to be plugged directly into a mixer or audio interface without requiring an external amp. Monitors actually typically have multiple amps – one for each speaker component, such as the woofer, tweeter, and mid-range speaker. This allows for a more accurate and dynamic frequency response, because each frequency range is not sharing a power source. The power required to drive the bass and kick drum doesn’t take away from the treble or middle range frequencies. The only drawback to built-in amps is that they may not be as powerful as a separate device, and they give you less control over the amplification. Studio monitor amps don’t need to be super powerful because monitors aren’t designed to get loud. The listener is always sitting right in front of the speakers, so they are designed for low volume precision listening.
PA speakers are used for large venue events like concerts or ceremonies. PA stands for ‘public address’ and these speakers are literally designed to address the public, or reach a large amount of people. The purpose behind the engineering of a PA speaker is to produce high volumes and be audible from pretty much all directions. There is less attention to audio details, accuracy, and frequency balance. But that doesn’t meant they’re bad speakers. The quality of PA speakers has increased dramatically in recent years, but there is still a significant difference between the audio produced by a PA system and a home theatre system.
PA speakers can be passive or active. Passive speakers are often chosen because they are lighter and it’s easier to customize your PA system when using separate devices for amplification and mixing. Active speakers require fewer devices so they can make for a simple PA setup. Some active speakers even feature a built-in mixer so you can have an entire PA system in one portable device.